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Peonies are perennial floral favorites

Peony cultivation dates back to the Sui dynasty in China, roughly 1400 years ago, and the peony has been a tried and true performer in the garden ever since. The peony is as much of a classic in North American gardens as is the Mustang in car collections.  Peonies are one of the earliest flowering shrubs, bursting into bloom in the Midwest during May. They offer tremendous blooms that can be as large as a baseball for cutting and arranging, are highly fragrant and range in color from pure white to blushing pink to cherry, crimson and fuschia. Some newer hybrids even come in yellow, coral and copper shades.  Many peony varieties are cold hardy to zone 3. It’s no wonder the peony is one of the most popular flowering plants in North America.


The peony plants available on the market today fall into one of two categories: herbaceous or woody, or tree, peonies.  Herbaceous plants are the common garden peony (Paeonia lactiflora) and are the type most commonly found in Midwestern and northern growing zones. These perennial shrubs grow approximately 24” to 30” tall and create a clump of similar size in diameter. They bloom during mid- to late spring and have glossy deep green leaves tinged with maroon  that retain an ornamental appearance until the first heavy frost.  The tree peony is native to China. The plant has one or more woody stems that often reach 4 – 5 feet in height.  Like their herbaceous counterparts, tree peonies are hardy to growing zone 4 and boast large, fragrant blooms.   Tree peonies come from a region that receives only 30” of water a year and the plants are highly tolerant of drought. They benefit from having a deep layer of mulch placed over the root zone for winter protection in zones 4 through 6.

A well-tended peony plant can grow and bloom for many years.  Healthy plants that are over 100 years old have been found in abandoned homesteads and cemeteries, but a little maintenance goes a long way.  Fertilizing with a bloom-booster throughout the growing season, removing spent blooms and adding a foliar feeding of micronutrients such as Spray N Grow keeps peonies in blooming condition. Add wood ashes or lime to highly acidic soil, as peonies prefer soil that has a pH close to neutral. Full sun encourages prolific blooming, but peonies can tolerate a little shade, especially in areas that have extremely hot summers.


Divide the plants every 5 or 6 years. Not only does this enhance the plant’s blooming capacity, it also helps keep the plant contained. Peony plants can spread and achieve a diameter close to 3 feet, so dividing the plants every 5 years or so keeps the plant within the confines of the garden bed.  Be sure each division has at least three "eyes." These are the areas on the root that send up green shoots. Replant the divisions in late summer (August) and fall, and plant only 2" deep. If roots are positioned any deeper the plant will send up shoots but fail to flower. In the fall, cut stalks down to a height of 2" and mulch plants well. Burn spent foliage if peonies are growing in heavy clay soil to avoid harboring fungal diseases.


All peonies are lovely, but the large, double varieties are fantastic for flower arranging. These include the heirloom varieties, Festiva Maxima (white with pink flecks) and Bunker Hill (deep red.) Cut the flowers just as the buds are starting to unfurl, condition in warm water that contains flower food and enjoy a fragrant bouquet for at least a week.  Add irises, roses and a few bits of green foliage for a glorious formal display.


Look for peony plants in local nurseries, online or at garden club plant sales from August through October.