Name: Peony, peony rose, Chinese peony, Paeonia officinalis, P. lactiflora (herbaceous peonies), Paeonia delavayi, P. suffruiticosa (tree peonies), ITOH intersectional hybrids.
Height: usually 0.5–2.4m tall.
Foliage: herbaceous perennial or deciduous shrub dependent upon the species or hybrid.
Climate: prefers a cool temperate climate with a cold winter to flower well.
Soil: a cool, well-drained, humus-rich soil is preferred, with a pH of 6.5–7.0. The addition of lime is beneficial.
Position: best grown in a sheltered position in full sun or partial shade with protection from hot, drying winds.
Flowering and fruiting: strikingly beautiful flowers in spring with masses of stamens in the centre.
Feeding: use a controlled-release organic fertiliser specifically for flowering plants in late summer.
Watering: regular watering throughout the growing and flowering period in spring and in summer to keep the soil cool and moist.
The peony is derived from the genus Paeonia, which comprises varieties considered to be either herbaceous perennials or deciduous shrubs, depending on the species. Growing from 50cm up to around 2.4m tall for some varieties, the stems emerge in spring with delicate foliage made up of many finely divided leaflets. These leaves may take on rich reddish to bronze tones before fading to green as the season advances.
The various peony species and hybrids bloom from spring to early summer with fragrant single to fully double flowers in red, pink, white, yellow and orange shades, often with masses of golden stamens forming a glowing central boss in the single-flowered varieties. These may be up to 20cm across for herbaceous types, and nearly 30cm across for some tree peony cultivars.
The peony originated in Europe and Asia, apart from two species that are found only in north-western America. Naturally found growing in meadows, grassland and woodland clearings, the plants prefer full sun to partial shade with protection from wind. In areas with warmer summers, partial shade is preferred. The herbaceous and tree peony varieties require a cold winter to promote flowering, so will flower best in the colder areas of Australia, such as mountainous districts, Tasmania and Victoria. Tree peony varieties will grow in cooler temperate areas, but the flowers may be smaller, or not as numerous
The rare and expensive ITOH, or intersectional peony hybrids were developed by crossing herbaceous peonies with tree peonies. These have woody stems that flower later in spring but retain their foliage until late autumn.
The peony suits both formal and cottage-style planting, and is at its best in mixed borders with roses and other perennials, or underplanted with spring and summer flowering bulbs.
The peony requires a well-drained soil with the addition of plenty of aged or composted organic matter and manures to provide an environment that is cool and moist in summer, but not wet. The best growing conditions consist of a pH around 6.5–7. Apply compost and manures annually around the plant during spring, and plant so that the woody tuber is no more than 5cm deep to the top of the crown. Allow at least 60cm between plants for future growth without disturbing the root system. New plants are best planted in autumn for quicker establishment; mix in some dolomite lime for increased growth and vigour. Every three years, particularly for tree peonies, top-dress with dolomite lime.
Keep well-watered during the summer and be patient, as they will grow slowly for the first two years, then gradually increase in the third before reaching maturity in four or five years’ time. In pots and containers, always use a premium standard potting mix with the addition of two or three handfuls of dolomite lime each time it is re-potted.
Feed your peony in late summer or early autumn with a controlled-release organic fertiliser for flowering plants, avoiding high-nitrogen fertilisers. Unlike most plants, tree peonies only produce new root growth to feed and store nutrients actively from autumn until the end of winter. Herbaceous peonies will respond to additional feeding in summer after flowering.
Peony makes wonderful cut flowers, so cut some for a vase to enjoy inside. Deadhead fading flowers to encourage the production of more flowers and side shoots, particularly for tree and ITOH peonies. Cut herbaceous peony stems down to the ground in autumn. Tree peonies should be allowed to die down naturally—only prune dead or damaged wood in spring, just before new growth commences.
Peony experiences few pests and diseases, with most problems being related to inadequate soil conditions and nutrients. To avoid this, additional calcium and magnesium in the form of dolomite lime will improve flowering and vigour.
The fungus peony blight affects the aerial parts of the plant, which turns dark brown and wilts. This is more prevalent during wet weather, and good hygiene practices like removing and disposing of all foliage in autumn by burning will reduce the possibility of reinfection in spring. Effective control can also be achieved through the use of a copper-based fungicide.
Peony is usually divided or propagated in autumn, but only do this to mature clumps, as they may take a year to settle back into flowering well again. Lift, remove all dead foliage and the soil from around the roots, then leave it for a couple of hours until it becomes more flexible. Cut through the roots with a sharp knife, ensuring that you have four or five dormant buds on the crown. Dust the cut surface with a fungicide and replant.
Seeds can be planted in seed-raising mix in shallow pots topped with grit. Do this during autumn, and leave the pots outside. Label carefully, as growth is very slow, producing a root in the following spring and then taking another year to produce the first leaf. Flowering may take four or five years, so patience is a virtue. Bare-rooted peonies can be purchased and planted in spring, but take longer to establish, so autumn planting is preferred. The more expensive and rare tree and ITOH peonies are usually purchased as potted specimens in autumn.
Camellia: a magnificent evergreen shrub flowering from late winter through to spring, suitable for acid soils.
Roses: small shrubs to large climbers with elegant and often fragrant blooms in spring through to autumn.
Foxgloves (Digitalis): statuesque biennials and perennials with spikes of delicate two-lipped tubular flowers in spring.
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