The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Time to Enjoy Peonies

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
Extension Educator, Horticulture
slmason@illinois.edu

Is it pennies, pineys, pea-o'nees or pea'o-nees (my choice)? To help us or to confuse us further, the genus is Paeonia and is pronounced pea-o'ni-ay.

We may not agree on peony pronunciation, but we do agree on our long love affair with peonies. Peony history goes back over 2500 years to cultivation in China. They were used for centuries as a medicinal and magical plant. Peony roots or seedpods were hung around the neck to cure insanity or epilepsy. Peonies were thought to protect against storms, demons and nightmares. I see magic every time I see them bloom.

As cultures changed the medicinal and magical powers of peonies waned, but not the love affair. Peony breeding continues today with over 30 species and hundreds of cultivars and hybrids available.

Peonies are long-lived plants surviving a hundred years or more. I often hear people say they rescued some of their grandma's peonies from the family farm. Grandma had more than likely used her peonies to decorate gravesides on Memorial Day.

Even when not in flower, peonies can be a welcome addition in flowerbeds. Plant peonies behind spring flowering bulbs such as daffodils or tulips. As the bulb foliage dies, the peony is there to cover the area. Peonies are great companions to annual salvia, Siberian iris, lilies, iris, phlox or poppies.

Peony flower colors include white, yellow, pink, coral, red and maroon. Peonies come in just about every color but blue. The flowers also come in different forms: single, semi-double, Japanese and double. Single is an open form with five or more large wide petals. Semi-double has several layers of large wide petals often with broad center petals. Japanese has large petals with a prominent puff in the center. They are sometimes called anemone flowered. Double peonies have a pompom appearance.

Peonies have some fragrance, however the best fragrance is often with the double pinks. Select early, mid and late season peonies to stretch the flower period to 6 weeks from late April to late May. Also check out smaller sized peonies available called rock garden peonies and the lovely soft textured leaves of fernleaf peonies.

Garden peonies prefer full sun and moist well-drained soil. They should be divided and planted bare root in September. Container grown peonies can be planted in spring or fall. American Peony Society lists its award winners at http://peony.info/apswinne.htm .

For a truly dramatic plant, check out tree peonies. They are not really trees but are large flowered four-foot tall shrubs. Their woody stems do not die back in winter. The dinner plate sized flowers generally bloom in late April and early May, a week or so earlier than herbaceous garden peonies. Tree peonies are native to mountainous regions so are a bit different than garden peonies in their growing requirements. Well-drained soil is essential. Tree peonies prefer a slightly basic soil (above pH of 7) in a partial shade garden.

Tree peonies are produced by grafting a woody peony onto herbaceous garden peonies. The graft should be planted six to twelve inches below the graft union. Some tree peony cultivars are still a bit pricey, but cost has dropped over the last few years. Some tree peony Gold Medal Award winners are 'Age of Gold', 'High Noon', 'Shintenchi', and 'Chinese Dragon'.

Visit Allerton Park's peony garden in Monticello over the next few weeks. Look for a glimpse on my In the Garden segment Thursday, May 19 on WCIA TV at 6:50 am and 7:25 am.

Plant Sale

Saturday, May 13, come to thePlant Sale inside Lincoln Square Village sponsored byCU Herb society, Grand Prairie Friends and Prairie Grove Volunteers and CU Professional Business Women's Club. Find herbs, native plants and annual flowers and plenty of people to answer your questions.

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