Peonies for­ever

Flam­boy­ant gar­den fa­vorite has stood the test of time

The Daily Herald - - HOME & GARDEN - By Adrian Hig­gins

Fash­ion and taste come and go in the gar­den like any­where else, but peonies are the rarest of blooms — they have never been out of style.

Their ap­peal rests on their out­size beauty, pure and sim­ple. The frilli­est forms are in-your-face flam­boy­ant, and even the more re­strained va­ri­eties are ir­re­sistibly big and eye-catch­ing. The col­ors range from snow white to ro­man­tic blush to blood red. Some va­ri­eties are as per­fumed as the sweet­est rose or lily.

An­other com­pelling trait of the pe­ony is that it is the gi­ant tor­toise of the gar­den; once es­tab­lished, it just keeps plod­ding along. It is not un­usual to sa­vor peonies planted decades ago by your par­ents or grand­par­ents, or some long-for­got­ten gar­dener. This longevity is a bless­ing and some­times a curse. Be­cause a plant sur­vives so long, peonies are in­ter­twined with child­hood ex­pe­ri­ence and mem­ory. They have that flo­ral mojo called nos­tal­gia.

Peonies in­habit two par­al­lel uni­verses: As a beloved late­spring gar­den peren­nial and as a cut flower fully and ex­trav­a­gantly em­braced by Amer­ica’s wed­ding em­po­rium.

In both realms, some of the old va­ri­eties, such as the frilly, white Fes­tiva Max­ima or the ruf­fled, soft-pink Sarah Bern­hardt, re­main wor­thy and pop­u­lar, but many of the im­mor­tal peonies that in­habit our gar­dens are now sec­ond-rate com­pared with newer of­fer­ings.

Your cur­rent pe­ony might be per­form­ing poorly for a num­ber of rea­sons. Some prob­lems can be fixed by mov­ing a pe­ony or im­prov­ing its care, but other traits are not fix­able. I’m think­ing of that twin fail­ing: the pe­ony plant that sprawls at the first sign of a spring storm, and the bloom that is too big and heavy for its flimsy stem, so it breaks.

Mod­ern va­ri­eties have been bred as “shorter, stronger plants that are more weather-re­sis­tant,” said Roy Klehm, a fourth-gen­er­a­tion grower and breeder whose com­pany, Klehm’s Song Spar­row Farm and Nurs­ery, is based in Avalon, Wis­con­sin. Add to the mix stronger col­ors and bet­ter flower form, and the case for mod­ern hy­brids is made. Yes, peonies are pricey, but few other flow­er­ing plants live so long or are so showy.

Peonies come in three ba­sic types: as the com­mon herba­ceous peren­nial that dies to the ground each win­ter, as a de­cid­u­ous shrub named the tree pe­ony and as a hy­brid be­tween the two, called an in­ter­sec­tional. Both tree peonies and in­ter­sec­tion­als tend to have enor­mous flow­ers that ap­pear ear­lier than reg­u­lar peonies, usu­ally as sin­gle or semi-dou­ble forms with highly dec­o­ra­tive cen­tral sta­mens.

Most gar­den and florist’s peonies are of the herba­ceous type, and while most peo­ple dis­tin­guish them by color, they vary, too, in the ar­chi­tec­ture of their blooms.

Some are sin­gle or semi-dou­ble with dec­o­ra­tive sta­mens, oth­ers have a pom­pon of cen­tral pe­tals, and oth­ers are fully dou­ble. In mod­ern va­ri­eties, the outer, or guard, pe­tals have a rigid­ity that holds the bloom to­gether agree­ably.

Al­though their sea­son is short, peonies have al­ways been a pop­u­lar florist’s flower. In re­cent years, “mar­ket de­mand has soared,” said Richard Cur­rie,

a flower grower orig­i­nally from Zim­babwe but who now owns the old­est pe­ony-grow­ing busi­ness in the United States — Styer’s Peonies — dat­ing to 1890.

“It’s an event flower, mainly,” Cur­rie said. “Wed­dings, par­ties, events. You have to have that pe­ony look­ing per­fect for 12 hours. It’s all about the show and the mo­ment.”

With proper care, cut peonies can look good in the vase for the bet­ter part of a week.

The pe­ony has been buoyed by the same forces that have pro­pelled the gar­den rose to con­tem­po­rary pop­u­lar­ity: First as part of Martha Ste­wart’s mul­ti­me­dia orgy of el­e­gance and more re­cently by the sur­feit of images on so­cial-me­dia sites such as Pin­ter­est. Florists to­day ex­pect ev­ery bride-to-be to ar­rive at a meet­ing with dig­i­tal pic­ture boards.

The softer pinks, whites and blushes fig­ure promi­nently in bou­quets, and many brides like a fully dou­ble pink be­cause it pho­to­graphs well, said Jen­nifer “Jo” Oliver of the flo­ral de­sign stu­dio High­way to Hill.

But as the soft­ness of spring yields to the sul­try weather of sum­mer, “the stronger col­ors re­ally work well,” she said, in­clud­ing ma­genta, golden yel­low, crim­son and pur­ple.

Trained as an artist, she sees value in adding the smaller blooms of roses and sweet peas to an ar­range­ment, to re­lieve the drama of the pe­ony and to guide the eye through the ar­range­ment, much as a hi­er­ar­chy of plant­ings steers you through the gar­den, she said.

“Peonies tend to be a lit­tle bit bossy,” she said. “It’s nice to have big mo­ments, but your eye needs places to go.”

Peonies as gar­den plants

Choose a lo­ca­tion care­fully: Peonies pre­fer to be left in peace once planted, and they need a lo­ca­tion free of root com­pe­ti­tion from trees or large shrubs, a site that is free drain­ing, and a lo­ca­tion that is sunny or in light or fil­tered shade. The roots are planted in the early fall with the crowns set an inch or two be­low the sur­face. Peonies ben­e­fit from a lit­tle fer­til­iza­tion af­ter flow­er­ing, but avoid a high-ni­tro­gen feed, which will di­min­ish blooming. Ex­ces­sive wa­ter from au­to­matic ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tems may cause them to rot.

Pe­ony plants lose much of their gloss af­ter blooming. Cur­rie sug­gests plac­ing plants in a tran­si­tional area of the gar­den “where they will fade, be­cause they’re ‘now’ and then they’re done,” he said.

Peonies for cut­ting

Few ur­ban and subur­ban gar­den­ers have the lux­ury of a re­mote sunny space for cut flower gar­dens, but es­tab­lished pe­ony plants can pro­vide “cuts” for the home. How­ever, if you take too many flower stalks, or take them when the plant is too young, you will weaken it and di­min­ish its fu­ture vigor.

Wait un­til the pe­ony has been in the ground for three win­ters be­fore cut­ting stems. And then take no more than one-third of the flow­er­ing stems. If you take ev­ery stem, you re­move much of the fo­liage that the plant needs to build strength. “And you don’t have to pick them to the ground,” Klehm said. “Leave two or three leaves on a stem.”

The other skill is in pick­ing them at the op­ti­mum mo­ment. “The most im­por­tant thing with cut peonies is get­ting the cut stage right,” Cur­rie said, “and to do that you have to walk the fields. It’s a mat­ter of three or four hours mak­ing the dif­fer­ence be­tween the flower be­ing too tight or too blown.” How can you tell?

Place two fingers un­der the bud and your thumb on top. If it doesn’t give, it’s not ready. It should have the feel of a marsh­mal­low, per­haps a lit­tle harder. But if it feels as if you’re press­ing on a nut, leave it for later.

Af­ter cut­ting, the stems should be con­di­tioned by plac­ing them — dry — in the fridge (not freezer) for a few hours. Then re­cut them and place them in a bucket of wa­ter overnight. They will then be ready for the vase. As with any cut flow­ers, you should make fresh cuts when they go in the vase, keep fo­liage above the wa­ter line and re­place the wa­ter ev­ery two or three days be­fore it gets cloudy.

I cared this way for a bunch of Co­ral Charm that Cur­rie gave me. They made it to the vase on a Sun­day and were still go­ing strong the fol­low­ing Fri­day. Oliver likes the way this pop­u­lar va­ri­ety not only opens into chal­ices dur­ing its life but also shifts from a strong ma­genta to a soft pink. Even di­vas, it seems, mel­low as they age.

WASH­ING­TON POST PHOTOS

It’s not un­usual to tend peonies that were planted two or more gen­er­a­tions ear­lier.

The pe­ony va­ri­ety Do Tell. Mod­ern va­ri­eties have been bred to be more weather-re­sis­tant.

Peonies have cap­ti­vated gar­den­ers since clas­si­cal times and have never fallen from fa­vor.

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