Rather like clumps of daffodils, forsythias and buddlejas that spring up each year and look great, even though they may be untended and on waste ground, so you may occasionally discover a herbaceous peony, flowering heroically on a patch of derelict ground that would once have been a garden.
Such peonies are so durable that they’ll survive decades of neglect – and they have been known to survive a hundred years or more, granted, with some tender loving care, especially in the latter years.
These plants are the perfect choice for gardeners looking for opulence, drama and even fragrance combined with a cast iron constitution.
There are essentially four different types of peony. Keen gardeners may wish to grow some of the wild species, though they are not usually the ones from which the dramatically colourful varieties are derived. There are also woody tree peonies, which have bare winter stems and are better suited to mid-way or the backs of borders. There are also hybrids, that are a cross between the tree peonies and the herbaceous types, which are becoming more popular (see the variety ‘Yellow Crown’, below).
|Farmer Gracy’s Peony Conundrum|
|See if you can work out the answer to this question (answer at the bottom of this page).
The herbaceous peony ‘Sarah Bernardt’ was named after the actress (1844-1923) who saw fame on the stage and during the early years of film. But in which city was she born, and died 79 years later?
The largest group, however, is the more traditional, highly colourful herbaceous perennial peonies. Sometimes called the lactiflora peonies, these are the ones that are as tough as old boots. They first arrived into the UK from Europe, Russia and the Far East in the early 1800s, and quickly sparked a Victorian obsession with collecting and growing them. They have deep tuberous roots that store moisture and food, so you can see why they have stood the test of time.
In spring their tight crowns throw up a mass of new upright shoots, often in shades of red, bronze and purple, and they quickly get noticed. In fact, they look wonderful when featured alongside blue-and-white chionodoxas and Anemone blanda, creating a very pretty spring scene.
The plants quickly grow to 75-90cm high, and in May or June they burst into flower. Heads can be up to 25cm across, and even more.
Many types are scented and, for me, some of the perfumes are stronger and better than roses. But, it is important to say that fragrance is a very personal thing: what is a gorgeous perfume to one person may be unpleasant or non-existent to another.
Where to plant Peonies
Peonies prefer soil that provides average moisture. They dislike acid conditions, but will grow well on clay, but hate waterlogged soil. If your soil is still puddled six hours after heavy rain, find another site (or add large quantities of organic matter and grit to the soil, as deeply as you can dig, to improve the drainage). These plants live for many years, so adding plenty of nutrients, in the form of well-rotted compost, to the soil at planting time is a good idea.
Peonies prefer to be in full sun, or very light shade. They will survive in moderate shade, but they will not bloom as well and stems will not be as strong.
How to plant Peony Bare Roots
Your peonies will be sent to you as ‘bare roots’. This just means that the soil has been washed from the roots, making the plant lighter and cleaner to send, with no risk of any soil-borne diseases or pests being spread. There are many types of plant that are sold and posted in this way; it makes them easy to handle, and they settle in the ground very quickly.
Set your peony roots in the ground, with the tips of the roots pointing downwards. The depth of planting is quite important: if planted too deep, the roots will grow and produce foliage but flower production will be limited. The buds, or growing points, should be 2-5cm below soil level – the shallow end of this range in warmer areas or in sheltered gardens, and the deeper end of this range in cold areas. Space plants 60-90cm apart, to allow room for plants when they are mature.
Water immediately after planting, being quite generous with the water to help settle the roots in.
The early foliage to appear will be immediately identifiable, with its bright reddish tints. As they lengthen they change to green, and develop into leaves. Flower buds will follow, although buds don't always form the first spring after planting.
The first year most roots will produce up to five leaf shoots, and perhaps just one or two flowers. In the second year the number doubles, and again in the third year. After that, the peony will be lush, bushy, with many flowering stems.
On-going care of Peonies
Peonies and very easy to care for, especially when compared to many other popular garden plants, such as roses, sweet peas or clematis: aphids seem completely disinterested in them, and slugs (on the whole) cause little damage.
When in growth, water plants during dry weather, and remember that deep watering once a week is better than lighter, shallow waterings every other day.
Many of the older Victorian varieties, especially those with large double flowers, including the perennial favourite ‘Sarah Bernhardt’, need to be supported – the flowers are so large and heavy that their weight can break the stems.
Feel free to cut blooms to bring indoors. This won’t harm the plants, and will provide gorgeous, often fragrant, stems for vases or bouquets. After blooming has finished for the season cut off any faded flower stems. The plants will continue to provide attractive, lush foliage for the remainder of the growing season.
As autumn arrives and temperatures fall, the leaves will turn yellow and, after the first frost they will wilt. At this point trim off the remaining leaves, and clear the ground. Next spring will, of course, bring fresh growth.
Lifting, transplanting and dividing Peonies
It is often said that you shouldn’t move peonies, as they won’t grow away again properly. Well, not in my experience! You can dig up a peony and plant it somewhere else, and it will hardly notice, provided that it is done in early autumn – with enough time for it to establish and bed its roots in the soil, before winter comes and the plant goes into dormancy. Then, in spring, you’ll find that the plant will grow away again normally, as if the move had never taken place.
Propagating peonies by lifting and dividing them can be done in early autumn, too. It is best to dig up the whole plant and, if you can, wash off the soil to see what you are doing. Cut the crown into large pieces with a sharp, stout knife, making sure that each piece has four or five buds. Don’t cut the pieces so small that there is just one bud on them: you won’t kill the plant, but it will take quite a few years before small divisions will start to flower.
Then replant; you may get flowers next year, you may not, but after that normal flowering will resume, providing plants are healthy.
There are several dozen varieties available commercially, all with slightly different colouring to the flowers. Farmer Gracy has selected six of the very best varieties:
Bowl of Beauty ↑
Bowl of Beauty was the first ever herbaceous peony to catch my eye, more than 30 years ago. It was actually bred in the Netherlands and released to the public in 1949, so it has stood the test of time. The bloom’s large base petals of cerise pink seem to form a cup to hold an abundance of small bright cream-white petals that crowd the centre. Over succeeding days, the cup opens out into a bowl, possibly 20cm wide, and the whole effect is stunning. There is a powerful fragrance, too. It grows to 90cm tall.
Buckeye Belle ↑
This is an award-winning yet unusual semi-double hybrid , with extremely dark red, well-rounded petals, almost forming a complete ball, and which appears much lighter in the sun. The petals are slightly crinkled. Several well-established plants of this variety growing together will really light up that part of the garden. To 85cm tall.
White Charm ↑
Peony White Charm is a slightly later-blooming hybrid, a double, white with its outer petals light pink. When fully open, the centre has a tinge of green. It has a delicate fragrance, and it makes an excellent cut flower; cut when in bud. To 90cm tall.
Yellow Crown ↑
This large golden yellow semi-double flower, with a touch of red at the base of the petals, can reach 25cm across; few varieties can offer such drama. It looks its best around mid-summer, regardless of the weather. It is one of the early hybrids that resulted when a white herbaceous peony and a yellow tree peony were first crossed, resulting in so-called Intersectional or Itoh Peonies. To 90cm tall.
Sarah Bernhardt ↑
This variety first came to prominence in 1906. It produces huge, fluffy apple-blossom-pink flowers, deeper in colour in the centre, fading towards the edges. It keeps its colour well generally, but in very bright sunshine the colouring fades to near white – but this doesn’t really detract from the variety. Twenty four years ago it was given a coveted Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society, for its excellent performance under UK growing conditions. To 95cm tall.
Madame Emile Debatene ↑
Spreading a wonderful fragrance when in flower, this peony makes a real picture in the late spring and early summer garden. It produces double rose-shaped flowers of deep pink, with a silvery sheen and a centre of smaller curly petals. Most of the stamens are mixed with the petals, but there is also a tuft of very short golden stamens deep in the centre of the flower.
The answer to the Peony Conundrum: 1) Paris. Sarah Bernhardt was born in 1844 as Henriette-Rosine Bernardt, the daughter of Julie Bernardt and an unknown father. Sarah was brought up at first in a pension and later in a convent; a somewhat difficult child, she wanted to become a nun, but one of her mother’s lovers, Napoleon III’s half-brother, decided that she should be an actress. When she was 16 he arranged for her to enter the Paris Conservatoire, the government-sponsored school of acting. She eventually became the most famous actress in the world at that time.