Friday, June 3, 2011

Peonies - “Always the bridesmaid, never the bride”

Roses are red, Violets are blue.

Given a choice, I’d pick a peony or two!

The ROSE has always been the official flower of June but fPaeonia Festiva Maximaor my money it should have been the peony. For generations, roses have been glorified and romanticized by kings, poets, artists and wedding planners and the poor peony has gotten the short end of the stick.

Don’t get me wrong, I do love roses, but I’m not sure why peonies have always been the “bridesmaid”, unless it’s because peonies only bloom once per season so they’re easy to forget in July when the re-blooming roses put out their second flush of flowers or maybe it’s because the breeders of herbaceous peonies have never been able to get past a limited palette of color.   

Herbaceous peonies--herbaceous meaning that plants die down to the ground every winter, will live for decades if planted in a suitable location and unlike roses are almost disease, pest and care free.  My dad has some that we know for certain were planted when my parents house was built back in the 1920’s and they’re still blooming and thriving to this day.

Peonies grow from woody root divisions and the flowers come in several types including double, semi-double and anemone (single).  The most fragrant varieties are usually the doubles.  However not all peonies are scented and if that’s what you’re looking for, be sure you read the description before purchasing.

The only “defect” they have, if you can call it that, is that the stems of peonies aren’t always able to support the large heavy blooms, especially after it rains, and need to be supported.  There are special peony “hoops” that you can buy and place around the plant in early spring when it’s just starting to get leaves. These are made of green wire and disappear in the foliage but still support the heavy blossoms. June Peonies_June 2011 009June Peonies_June 2011 004

Peonies also make magnificent cut flowers that will last a full week, if they’re picked in the morning when the buds are one-third to half open.  Even after they finish blooming the dark fern-leaf foliage makes a nice backdrop for perennials that bloom later.

HOW TO GROW:  Peonies do best in cold climates (Zones 4 to 8).  Root divisions which you can purchase from mail order sources are usually planted in fall and can take a couple of years before the plant is large enough to produce flowers but when you consider how long they can live and the number of blooms they produce per plant it’s well worth the wait.  If you’re in a hurry, you can also purchase potted plants that are blooming size but be prepared to spend $25 or more for a blooming size plant.

Peonies flourish in well-drained soil and it’s best to start out with a large hole (2 feet wide by 1+1/2 feet deep) that you fill up with a mix of well composted manure and leaf mold or peat moss.  If that seems like a  big hole—remember, they can’t get up and walk to a new location, when they run out of food, so they need a nice home.  You can add a handful of ground limestone and bone meal but I prefer organic fertilizer like Plantone to bone meal because bone meal will sometimes attract rodents and dogs who like to dig up bones!  It’s very important that the the “eyes” or stem buds  aren’t buried any deeper than 2 inches below the surface.

A mature peony can reach a height of 36" inches and 4 feet in diameter so keep that in mind if you’re planting them near a fence or foundation.  They’re a good choice for lining walkways and driveways though because they die back to the ground making room for snow removal.   June Peonies_June 2011 006

I add a new layer of compost around my plants every spring and fertilize them at the same time by scratching in a little  Plantone organic fertilizer.  I’ll do it again once more after they bloom.  I don’t mulch them because I don’t want to create a cozy environment for botrytis fungus which is about the only thing that can do a peony in.  Botrytis is a smelly fungal rot that spreads from the top of the plant down to the tuber and is pretty much incurable.  Once the plants die down, any dead leaves or stems should be removed to prevent botrytis. 


I get this question all the time from friends and neighbors who have otherwise thriving vigorous plants and 99% of the time,  the answer can be traced to three causes.

The first is the depth at which the root divisions are planted.   The “eyes” ( stem buds) should be planted up and about one and a half to two inches beneath the surface—any deeper and the plant won’t bloom.  I err on the side of 1+1/2 inches because the soil will settle and you can always add a little more if you need to.   If after three years, your peonies still aren’t producing any flowers—this is most likely the reason.

The second reason for not blooming is lack of sun.  Peonies like full sun (about 6 hours a day) but will tolerate a small amount of afternoon shade, especially in the warmer zones,  as long as they don’t have to compete with tree roots. 

The third reason peonies don’t bloom is ANTS or should I say, LACK OF ANTS.  Yes, I do mean the tiny crawling insects that can be a nuisance so we buy sprays and traps to get rid of them.  Unlike ants and humans, ants and peonies have a symbiotic relationship—meaning that they get along pretty well and both mutually benefit from it.

My dad,  hates ants and has been on a warpath with them for as long as I remember.  One June he sprayed the beautiful Festiva Maxima peonies that lined our driveway because he thought the peonies were attracting ants (little did he know). The chemical repellent worked great—no ants—but the peony buds failed to open—so no flowers either that year. 
 Peony budsAnts & Peonies






What my dad, and most people don’t know is that peonies secrete a sweet waxy nectar that seals the flower buds as they develop, The ants, attracted to the sweetness, chew off the wax which allows the buds to swell and open.  Once the flowers open, the ants lose interest and disappear, leaving behind the glorious flowers for us, humans, to enjoy.   

1 comment:

  1. I love peonies, too! I'm on the third year since I planted them, and I get several very nice blooms on each plant! My neighbor, who has had their plants 'forever', has loads of blooms, so I know I just need to be patient! I just love the doubles.....they're gorgeous! And thanks for all the info on them!


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