Extension Educator, Horticulture
If any flower can be described as voluptuous, it is the peony. Billowing bodacious blooms of white, yellow, pink, coral, red, or maroon can reach an eye-popping10-inch diameter. If variety is the spice of life, than peonies are hot peppers. Flowers come in just about every color and several 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, sometimes called anemone, has large petals with a prominent puff in the center. Double peonies have a pompom appearance worthy of any cheerleader. A prom party of peonies bursts onto the stage each spring, with each plant out-dressing the other at the garden gala.
Peonies are long-lived plants surviving a hundred years or more. People commonly remark about their efforts to rescue grandma's peonies from the family farm. Hundreds of peony cultivars are available. One white cultivar, 'Festiva Maxima', has been around since 1851 and is still for sale. Also available are diminutive peonies called rock garden peonies or the lovely soft textured fernleaf peonies.
Most everyone within two feet of a peony will have an overwhelming desire to stick their nose in the flower to experience the perfume. Peonies vary in their amount of fragrance. Double pinks are generally the most fragrant. With early, mid and late season peonies the flower period can be stretched to 6 weeks from late April to late May.
For a truly dramatic plant, check out tree peonies. While they are not really trees but 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. The leaves are lovely cut-leaf. Tree peonies are a bit more particular to growing requirements than garden peonies. Well-drained soil is essential as well as late afternoon shade.
Tree peonies are produced by grafting a woody peony onto herbaceous garden peonies. Some tree peony cultivars are still a bit pricey, but cost has dropped over the last few years. Tree peony Gold Medal Award winners include 'Age of Gold', 'High Noon', 'Shintenchi', and 'Chinese Dragon'.
Intersectional hybrids are some of the newest kids on the peony block. As a cross between a tree and an herbaceous peony, the leaves and flowers resemble a tree peony but the stems die to the ground each year. With cultivar 'Bartzella' imagine a 3-foot tall plant with 80 huge double yellow flowers over a 6 week period. But expect to pay a high price for such a floriferous beauty.
So that's the good about peonies. How about the bad and ugly? Some peonies can be plagued with fungal diseases. The fungus botrytis can attack stems and leaves but more noticeably the flower buds which form but turn brown and fail to open. Another one is peony measles. It can attack any part of the plant but is often noticed in late summer as the leaves develop red blotches until the leaves are unsightly. Generally both diseases are not life threatening for the plant…unless you consider ripping it out.
Herbaceous peonies vary greatly in their degree of disease susceptibility. Some of the older weak-stemmed varieties, especially reds, are susceptible. The newer more vigorous, thick stemmed varieties seem to be more resistant.
Sanitation can help immensely to lessen diseases. Remove infected leaves in late fall or early spring. Provide good air circulation around plants. Fungicide spray program can be useful, but would have to begin before stem emergence and each week until flowering.