Peonies have long been cultivated throughout the world and valued for their durability, fragrance, flower colors, and longevity. Peonies have been used in nearly every American garden since our ancestors set foot on this land. There is a certain air of age and wonder associated with peonies. It is not difficult to go to an old farmstead in May or June and find a few clumps of peonies blooming their hearts out. Peonies often remind us of a bygone era, when we could sit on the porch and listen to the gentle breezes of spring, without the drone of technology humming in our ears. A whiff of the fragrance can transport us to the gardens of our youth, where our grandmothers called to us from the kitchen during an early summer visit.
For the gardener today, we grow peonies to help retain those memories and make new ones for our children, so that they may cultivate in themselves a longing for and nurturing attitude toward the gardens we love. There are three types of peonies that I think of when I think about my own grandmother. It was in her gardens that I learned to care for and cultivate the wild things of nature. She had the true herbaceous peony that is so adored in June floral arrangements, with their sweet and spicy aromas. She also had some tree peonies with large, dinner plate sized yellow and pink flowers that bloomed before the true peonies and prolonged beauty in its peeling bark and shrub like romance. Then there was the fernleaf peony, a forecast of the wonders of summer to come. I never found out where she got the roots from, but I have plants that she once cared for from her own garden.
True herbaceous peonies need little to no care at once they have been properly planted and established. While it may take three or more years before a clump is performing at its full potential, the wait is well worth it. Once established, most gardeners tend to leave and let be the peony, although an occasional fertilizer should be applied (every three years). They are tough; they can survive to USDA hardiness zone 2 to 8 and need to have a cold period to bloom. They tolerate some shade, but prefer to be in warm full sun, well away from the leaching roots of trees and shrubs. They work well intermingled with other wonderful perennials, such as iris, coneflower, and lilies. Once the flowers are spent, remove the blooms and water during dry spells to increase flower power for next year. My wife enjoys bringing the blooms inside and leaving my plants bare, but I can live with it since the fragrances scent the whole house in minutes!
The mighty tree peony, which is really a woody perennial shrub, is perhaps the slowest growing wonders of the flower garden. At a rate of just one to six inches per year, the tree peony may shy away from young gardeners, but let me tell you it is worth the wait. When ready to bloom, these peonies have grandeur like nothing else! In April and May they put forth large, interesting flower buds that open into magnificent flowers that can be as much as fourteen inches across! I have always been a fan of yellows in the garden, seeking out plants and flowers that show this mighty sun color, and my grandmother’s yellow tree peony never disappointed me. It is still there in her garden, blooming every year with no care or trouble. Tree peonies seem to relish the dappled shade of a mighty tree nearby and shine for all to see. They are also the trendsetter of the peony world, with bronze to purple fall foliage.
The tiny little fernleaf peony is no laughing matter; its deep color and exceptional fragrance make it a truly unique experience. Whenever we would visit, I always wanted to see the fernleaf peonies, which act much more like a fringed bleeding heart than a peony. They are similar to the so called spring ephemerals which bloom forth mightily in the spring and then fade away in the heat of summer. Early in March, the fernleaf peony opens its buds and sends forth ferny, cutleaf plants. When Mother’s Day arrives, they open their tight flower buds and send out their wafts of unearthly fragrances. At only one and half feet tall, they belong near the front of the garden so as not to lose them amongst the daylilies and irises of the cottage garden. Growing from tiny little corms, these are the hardiest peonies, being able to withstand temperatures of negative twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit.
All the peonies are deer resistant, leading to their popularity among farmers across the United States. While the herbaceous peonies have some troubles with mildews and thrips, few if any problems beset the fernleaf peony, except for the gardener forgetting where he planted it, as it disappears in the summer. So I will wander some more to the gardens of my youth, and hunt down these forgotten peonies for my own garden, waiting for their cherished memories and beauty.