Di­vide and con­quer

Gar­den­ing guru Peter Cun­dall ad­vises how to achieve bloomin’ mar­vel­lous re­sults with pe­onies

Sunday Tasmanian - Tassie Living - - FRONT PAGE - with Peter Cun­dall

THERE are about 30 known pe­ony species and count­less cul­ti­vated va­ri­eties many bred from the East Asian species Paeo­nia lac­t­i­flora.

These form the largest group of herba­ceous pe­onies which are treated as bor­der peren­ni­als.

Grow­ing a me­tre high dur­ing spring and sum­mer, they com­pletely die down in win­ter.

The other, far smaller pe­ony group in­cludes the much sought-af­ter and far more ex­pen­sive “tree” pe­onies. Many old va­ri­eties can grow 4m in height and when in flower are con­sid­ered to be among the most as­ton­ish­ingly beau­ti­ful of all or­na­men­tal plants.

All pe­onies are pop­u­lar be­cause of spec­tac­u­lar flower dis­plays and su­perb fo­liage.

Tas­ma­nia is ideal for grow­ing these won­der­ful plants which need cold win­ter soils and rel­a­tively cool sum­mers.

Pe­onies have sub­stan­tial roots, most

All pe­onies are pop­u­lar be­cause of spec­tac­u­lar flower dis­plays and su­perb fo­liage

be­ing large and swollen, like huge dark brown car­rot clus­ters. So per­fect drainage is es­sen­tial. Al­though tol­er­ant of most soils, pe­onies pre­fer en­riched loams, even with a little clay, with an an­nual dress­ing of dolomite lime­stone.

Tree pe­onies (Paeo­nia suf­fru­ti­cosa and hy­brids) are rel­a­tively ex­pen­sive to buy, mainly be­cause they are hard to prop­a­gate from seed or cut­tings. Some peo­ple have suc­cess­fully di­vided plants or even taken lay­ers but the most com­mon form of prop­a­ga­tion is by graft­ing on to herba­ceous pe­ony root­stock. The plants are then planted deeply into the soil so the top-graft even­tu­ally forms and sur­vives on its own roots.

Seeds may be as large as peas and are no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult to ger­mi­nate, al­though the yel­low-flow­ered P. lutea is a little eas­ier. How­ever, if seeds are sown while still sticky-ripe in late sum­mer they

of­ten suc­ceed. Seedlings send out roots only dur­ing the first grow­ing sea­son, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to tell if ger­mi­na­tion has oc­curred. Only dur­ing the sec­ond year will shoots ap­pear above the soil. Dry, ma­ture seed im­me­di­ately lock into hard dor­mancy and are ex­tremely dif­fi­cult to ger­mi­nate with­out spe­cial treat­ment.

Tree pe­onies pre­fer part shade, al­low­ing flow­ers and fo­liage shel­ter from af­ter­noon sun. The beau­ti­ful leaves emerge dur­ing spring, with some show­ing rich, cop­pery tints that con­tinue into flow­er­ing. Flower buds are large and the mas­sive, heavy flow­ers — al­ways need­ing sup­ports — may be yel­low, red, pur­ple,

pink or white and al­most ev­ery shade be­tween.

Herba­ceous pe­onies cost less to buy and the plants are at home in full sun. Lack of light is a com­mon rea­son why they may fail to flower. Like tree pe­onies they are best left undis­turbed with some out­stand­ing clumps of herba­ceous pe­onies be­ing than a hun­dred years old and thriv­ing.

All herba­ceous pe­onies die back to the ground in late au­tumn so make sure lo­ca­tions are clearly marked. Clumps may be lifted and di­vided for ex­tra plants from April to late July but keep in mind the fleshy roots are eas­ily snapped.

When clumps are lifted, the dull-white growth buds can be seen at the top of each root mass. Cut clumps apart so each di­vi­sion has one or two healthy buds. These buds should fin­ish up just be­low the sur­face af­ter di­vi­sions are planted.

Pe­onies are now avail­able at gar­den cen­tres and spe­cial­ist sup­pli­ers. To ob­tain the best selec­tion, study spe­cial­ist mail or­der cat­a­logues.

When your par­cel of brown, un­in­ter­est­ing di­vi­sions ar­rive, don’t be put off by the ap­pear­ance be­cause they will de­velop into some of your most pre­cious gar­den de­lights. You will have to wait a cou­ple of sea­sons for your new pe­onies to start flow­er­ing but you’re in for a life­time of spring glory. And ev­ery year those spec­tac­u­lar dis­plays of mag­nif­i­cent flow­ers gets big­ger and bet­ter.

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