May is one of the prettiest months in the garden as the trees, shrubs and spring-blooming perennials all break into glorious bloom. This is the month that peony-lovers traditionally look forward to all year as their favorite flower puts on a show in the very heart of spring.
Peonies are so lush and extravagant – and so dramatically big – they make any gardener think, “By gosh, I am really growing some flowers.” A peony blossom can be a huge powder puff of a flower, eight or nine inches in diameter. There’s a shimmering quality to all those petals, a perfect silkiness to their texture, and in some varieties, a light, sweet scent buried in their dewy depths.
The great majority of old-fashioned peonies come in a color range that on the face of it doesn’t sound large – choose white and cream or pick a shade from palest pink to deepest red. But within that slice of the color wheel there are literally thousands of variations and a great diversity of flower shapes.
For all their delicate loveliness, peonies are tough and can endure for decades or even centuries. Owners of older homes may find they have inherited peonies planted generations ago, the plants still vigorously blooming even when the rest of the garden has faded like an old photograph. Peonies thrive with little attention, have few pests and don’t appeal to the deer and rabbits.
The common “herbaceous” peonies have pliable green stems that die to the ground every fall. Because its flowers are often large and heavy, especially when wet with rain, this peony presents one major challenge: staking it so its beautiful blossoms don’t wind up face-down in the mud. The best solution may be purchased metal supports known as peony rings that are set in place before the new, maroon-tinted stems begin to leaf out. By the time the plant flowers, the rings are all but invisible.
Another solution is found by opting a different peony altogether. The “tree” peony has woody branches that persist all year, even after the plant sheds its green leaves. As with any sturdy shrub, these branches never need to be propped up.
Tree peonies were cultivated in ancient China and reached the West in the 1700s, but are still not all that common in American gardens. Among the tree peonies you’ll find new colors – yellows, sometimes tinged with orange – and sumptuous flowers with romantic names like ‘Young Dancing Girl’ and ‘Emerald on a Lavender Sea.’
A third type of peony is a 20th creation. The Itoh or “intersectional” peonies are named for the Japanese plant breeder Toichi Itoh who first pulled off the difficult business of crossing herbaceous and tree peonies just before he died in 1956. Combining the best traits of each, Itoh peonies have flowers like a tree peony on stems that die back in winter. Their stems are stiff enough to support flowers without staking. Itoh varieties are limited to a handful and can be tricky to find locally, but mail order companies including Song Sparrow carry them.
There’s no better place to bask in an expansive display of herbaceous and tree peonies than the nursery operated by Kathleen Gagan in Bernardsville. Peony’s Envy (peonysenvy.com) sells both types and has display gardens featuring 30,000 plants of 250 varieties that are open free to the public from May 1 to June 15 during peak bloom.
“If you grow all three kinds of peonies you can have them flowering from the second week in April to the second week in June,” says Gagan. “Just keep in mind their preferences. The herbaceous kinds need full sun, the tree peonies like dappled light and the Itohs will take either, although they like protection from the strong afternoon sun.”
Herbaceous and Itoh peonies rarely get taller than 3 feet overall, but the tree peonies can slowly grow to as much as eight feet – an important consideration in deciding where to plant them. Cost might be another consideration. Where herbaceous peonies might run $20 to $50, tree peonies and Itohs range upwards from $50 to $100– and some cost a lot more.
Peonies are usually planted as bare, knobby roots in the fall while they are dormant. Container-grown plants available in spring can be put right into the ground. As for planting companions, tall, bearded irises, which come in every color of the rainbow, might be the only other thing you need. The peony bed could also include deer-resistant shrubs like daphne and boxwood or later blooming perennials like tall Asiatic and Oriental lilies and foxgloves.
Many peonies make terrific cut flowers, but often are riddled with ants looking for sweet nectar. Try cutting the blossoms when the buds have swelled and colored up but are not yet open, or upending the flowers in a pail of water to encourage the ants to leave.
Whatever type of peony suits your fancy, these gorgeous flowers deserve a place in every garden. Long-lived and undemanding, they only get better as time goes by.