Spectacular blooms in countless colours and fantastic petal form, the family Peonia is a treasure trove of gems, guaranteed to embellish even the smallest of gardens.
Spectacular Plant with Healing Powers
Peonies, are the patient hardy perennial plants we know from grandmother’s or farmer’s gardens. Faithfully each year at Pentecost, they unfold their ball-like buds into spectacular rose-like blooms of many colours. Many of these peonies are the native Peonia officinalis or Peonia mascula revered throughout European history more for their healing prowess, than for their beauty. Peon pupil of Aesculapius’ God of Medicine (as the Greek myth goes), found and employed the curing plant peonia . Hearing of Peon's success, Ascepulius in a rage of professional jealousy had his pupil murdered. Peon, thanks to Pluto was gifted immortality living on in the healing plant that bears his name.
The King and his Ministers
Like roses, peonies profited by arrival to nineteenth century Europe, of the herbaceous peonies from China. Like roses, the promise of new genetic input ignited French breeders into a flurry of activity. They produced a flush of flamboyant French varieties and still familiar in peony catalogues like 'Felix Crousse' and 'Sarah Bernhardt'. Procuring the most coveted of all peonies the “tree peony” was another and a not so easy matter. Native to China, tree peonies were permanent favourites of Chinese Emperors and warmly called Hua Wang, “King of Flowers”. The Chinese herbaceous varieties on the other hand were called with respect, Hua Leang, “The King’s Ministers”. The peony, not the rose was always the most loved flower and inspirational motive for Oriental art. Only now, these last two decades since China has opened her commercial doors can gardeners more easily add breathtaking specimens with poetic names like 'Ying Luon Boa Zhu' (necklace with precious pearls).
A quiet revolution is happening to the way modern gardeners think about peonies. Magnificent plants, with climate change robustness and low care features, are our demands. No wonder we are giving this genus that fell out of fashion last century, a serious second thought. Peonies are the “hardiest and longest-living perennials in our gardens, with wonderful long-lasting foliage”, enthuses Josef Etzinger nurseryman and keeper of Feldweber’s notable peony collection. Few plants can match their flower form and colour nuances (over 1400!). Of course we are able to instantly recognise the peonies of grandmother’s garden: the (native to Europe) Peonia officialis or P. Masculain pink, white or red varieties that unfold their ball-like buds into ballerina-beauties reliably each Pentecost (the fifty days after Easter).
Spectacular as the peony is, the major weakness critics have is the short-lived, non-repeating blooms that need staking when wet. The late garden virtuoso Christopher Lloyd complained in his column, his favourite reached its climax between dawn and lunchtime inevitably on the day he was not at home. The breakthrough hybridising of a tree and herbaceous peony by Japanese Dr. Itoh has created a race of “longer flowering, stouter (until summer) and stouter,” explains Etzinger and has added “bigger, more delicate blooms in sumptuous yellows but still with the herbaceous habit of dying down in winter”.
Getting the best out of Peonies
“Be sure” advises Etzinger to cap all foliage at ground level before winter to avoid disease risk.” The future of the Itoh or Intersectional Hybrids (both identical) according to Roy Klehm of the famous American peony growing dynasty and ex-Chairman of the American Peony Society, is bright (Itoh Hybrids are the breed of peonies that brings the missing colour yellow into the peonies treasure trove). The breeding work of Roy and his father Carl with the original Chinese peony, Peonia lactifloria have given peony-lovers an astonishing bouquet of new and now very famous beauties: 'Cheddar Charm', 'Bowl of Cream' or 'Raspberry Sundae' all named by Roy by his father’s insistence “after food”. "Food," prompted father Carl “is easier to remember”.
Newer peonies are the ones to go for, urges Roy Klehm “they are in the garden for the long haul (at least your lifetime), so choose exciting ones”. Pay attention to flowering times and plant a selection that will flower from April until June. Vital (so Etzinger), “is a visit to nurseries in May to see them in full bloom”. Favourites ordered now will be delivered as bare root plants in autumn. Good stock, roots with 3 to 4 “eyes” (each holding a flower) will light up the garden with glittering treasure for decades to come.