by Jan Cashman
Peony (Genus Paeonia) is the perfect perennial flower for our climate. Peonies are fragrant, hardy, prefer our alkaline soils, and make a good cut flower. Long-lived peonies can be found, along with common purple lilacs and yellow shrub roses, in old, deserted farmyards, especially in the Midwest.
Most of the peonies we use today have descended from those found in China. The Chinese were the first to use the roots of peonies for their medicinal value as long ago as 2000 years. When Chinese peonies were brought to Europe in the middle ages, Europeans thought the roots of the peony helped almost any ailment.
Chinese horticulturalists were the first peony breeders. After peonies reached Japan in the 8th Century, the Japanese produced many delicate hybrids. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, European plant breeders used peonies from Japan to establish their own breeding programs. Many of the hybrids developed in France and England back then are still sold today, such as ‘Edulis Superba’, an early, fragrant double pink, hybridized in France in 1824. ‘Felix Crouse’ and ‘Francis Ortega’ are two other beautiful, fragrant, double-red French hybrids from the mid-1800’s. ‘Madame De Verneville’, another old French variety still found today, has a rose-like fragrance and white petals tipped with red.
Peonies were, and still are, bred and raised commercially in Minnesota and Iowa. In the early 1900’s, Brand Peony Farm in Minnesota developed many outstanding varieties.
When most of us think of peonies, we think of the herbaceous type that dies back to the ground every fall and emerges the following spring when the weather warms. Herbaceous peonies with double flowers, mostly hybrids, are the most popular. Peony blossoms can have a single row of petals which makes the yellow stamens in the center more noticeable. Japanese peonies are singles with 5 petals and pronounced stamens which do not produce pollen. Herbaceous peonies are found in shades of white, pink and red. There are a few rare yellow varieties. Peonies can also be classified by bloom-time-early, mid, or late. Here in the Gallatin Valley, that means early June, mid-June, or late June. Peonies may even bloom into July in cooler parts of the valley.
The rare fern-leafed peonies (P. tenuifolia) bloom early, at the end of May, with a deep red double flower. This plant’s leaves are fine and fern-like. Its flowers don’t last long, but fern-leaf peony’s rarity has makes it in demand, therefore expensive. Tree peonies (P. suffruticosa), not really trees but small woody shrubs, will not survive our winters.
The best time to plant peonies is bare root in the fall. However, potted peonies can be planted anytime all spring and summer. I asked Clifford Shipp, retired MSU Foundation Director whose hobby was growing peonies, for his advice. At one time, at his home south of Bozeman, he had over 500 peonies, many of them rare and unusual varieties. His advice to anyone who wants to grow exceptional peonies is to take extra care when planting them. This extra care will be worth it in the long run for this long-lived perennial.
Clifford digs his holes 15″ by 15″ and works a shovelful of well-composted manure and one cup of bone meal into the soil going back into the hole. Peonies like rich, well-drained soil. The eyes (sprouts) of the peonies should be planted only an inch or two below the soil’s surface; peonies planted too deep will not flower. Too much shade could be another cause of poor flowering, so choose a sunny location for your peonies.
Peonies will continue to grow and bloom in the same spot for years. But, in order to get lots of prize blooms, Clifford suggests dividing and moving the peony roots every 5 to 7 years. Peonies will usually bloom the first or second year after planting. As the plants get bigger, most varieties need support to keep the heavy blossoms from toppling over.
Peonies are subject to few insects and diseases. Ants can often be found on peonies when they are in bloom. It is not true that ants are necessary in order for the peony’s buds to open; ants are harmless and are just after the flower’s nectar. In the fall, after your peonies freeze and die back, cut the foliage off and discard it to prevent diseases. Fertilize with a high phosphorous fertilizer in the fall or early spring.
Smaller varieties of peonies work well in a mixed perennial bed. Or do as we have done, plant a bed of peonies alone to give you a show of blooms and fragrance every June. I am convinced there is no better perennial flower for our area than the peony. Every Montana gardener should have one-or many!