Most gardeners in Calgary are familiar with peonies (or paonies). They’re long lived, fairly disease resistant, sport a wide variety of showy flowers, and like our climate.
If they do get a little floppy, it’s only under a profusion of blooms – nothing a wire support ring can’t deal with. Yes, peonies are easy plants to incorporate into almost any garden but the real issue is in the choosing. They fall into three main categories: herbaceous, tree, and Itoh.
Herbaceous peonies or common garden peonies are the most familiar to western gardeners. These will die back to the ground and reappear in the spring. Tree peonies have woody stems and will drop their leaves in autumn. They’re slower growing than their herbaceous cousins, and often less hardy, but can produce a number of flowers per stem. The Itoh peony, or intersectional peony, is a cross between a herbaceous and tree peony. Much more difficult to cultivate and generally more expensive than the other two categories, the benefits of this type are in its strength of stem and longer lasting blooms. For these reasons, many people consider them to be the future of peonies.
So how to choose? Perhaps flower style is your main consideration. Will you prefer singles or doubles? Bomb style or Japanese? Maybe colour is most important and you overlook the corals, pinks, magentas, yellows, and whites for those perfect scarlet blossoms. Scented, unscented, early or late blooming, these plants aim to please, as do their enthusiasts. There are now over 5000 named varieties of herbaceous peony to select from, some of which are mentioned here.
‘Edulis Superba’ (Lemon, 1824): One of the oldest cultivars still in commercial production. This double magenta-rose flower is fragrant and crown shaped with no stamens. It provides lovely cut flowers, usually blooming early to mid-season.
‘Festiva Maxima’ (Miellez, 1851): Another mid-season bloomer, the double flowers start off pale pink and then fade to a creamy white with red splashes. Its carpals are pale green and have creamy white styles. Very fragrant, this too makes a great cut flower.
‘Avant Garde’ (Lemoine, 1907): One of the first hybrids. This early blooming selection had large, single dusty rose flowers, golden yellow anthers and long purple filaments. Be sure you’re getting P. wittmanniana x P. lactiflora if you want authenticity.
‘Scarlet O’Hara’ (Glasscock-Falk, 1956): A luscious single with scarlet red petals, large golden yellow anthers and green carpals. Easy to grow, this is a strong, vigourous, fragrant plant.
‘Coral Charm’ (Wissing, 1964): A saucer shaped semi-double with peach coloured flowers and an orange centre. This beautiful flower has green tomentose carpels, magenta styles, and large golden yellow anthers.
‘Lime Phosphate’ (Anderson, 1999): An unusual hybrid, these blossoms are chartreuse-green semi-doubles which fade to pale yellow. With a vanilla fragrance and distinctly wrinkled dark green leaves, this early bloomer would be an interesting addition to most gardens.
‘Court Jester’ – Itoh (Anderson, 1999): This spectacular single opens to a star shape which begins with orange & apricot petals with red flares. The orange fades to yellow and the reds take on a violet tinge as the flower ages.
‘Garden Treasure’ – Itoh (Hollingsworth, 1984): A popular Itoh, this plant features erect stems with dark purplish-green leaves in spring which charge to mid-green later in the season. Semi-double, bright golden yellow blossoms with red flares become more double as the plant matures. These plants will bloom up to a month long.
‘Shin-tenchi’ or New Heaven and Earth: A Japanese tree peony, its flowers are very large. Purple with red flares to start, they eventually fade to pink in the sun.
‘Shan Hu Tai’ or Coral Terrace: This slow growing, Chinese tree peony is a garden specimen which will form a spreading shrub over the years. The flowers are bright red, semi-double or full double, with purple-brown flares and a spicy fragrance.
‘Tria’ (Daphnis, D-3-1965): This tree peony hybrid features three flowers on each stem. The delicate apricot yellow blossoms open in succession, elongating the bloom time of this selection. The long yellow anthers give this flower a lovely yellow on yellow appearance.
No matter which peonies make their way into your garden, you’ll have chosen plants which will provide lasting enjoyment and beauty, perhaps for generations to come.
Joanne Klein is a Master Gardener residing in Acadia.
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