How to grow peonies

Val Bourne

Val Bourne introduces us to the herbaceous peony, a flower that has been in and out of fashion since Medieval times, and explains how to grow them.



Peonies were an Edwardian obsession at the turn of the twentieth century, but they fell out of fashion until recently, when several Gold Medal winning gardens at Chelsea featured herbaceous peonies in abundance.

Herbaceous peonies have graced English gardens since Medieval times and the single red form of Peony officinalis appears in 15th century paintings. The common double form 'Rubra Plena' probably originated in the 16th century and it’s a great survivor in cottage gardens. There was one in my abandoned cottage garden and it could be centuries old.

Where to plant

Peonies prefer a sunny situation and this also help flowering, in good light one mature plant can produce twenty to thirty blooms or more. But they will tolerate some shade and still produce some flowers. It is said that single peonies perform better in shade than doubles.

They are long-lived, hardy and tolerate most soils. However they do best on deep, fertile soil that retains moisture in summer.

How to plant

Prepare the ground well when planting peonies by incorporating lots of organic matter and then add a sprinkling of bone meal to encourage the roots.

The secret of growing peonies well is not to plant the tubers too deeply as they will resent being planted too deeply and refuse to flower. The top of the crown should be no more than 5 cms (2 ins) below the soil surface. If they are too deep they produce leaf and no flower. When planting, mix in some organic matter and add a handful of bonemeal.

Firm the soil around the eyes of the peony after planting.

If your soil is particularly heavy or sandy, mulch lightly with well rotted manure or compost. Take care, as excessive mulching may encourage fungal diseases. Avoid mulching on top of the crown or your plant may become too deeply buried. Mulch in a circle about 15-20cms (6-9 ins) around the peony.

Their tuberous roots dislike being waterlogged in winter, so improve the drainage on heavy clay by incorporating lots of grit.

If your soil is acidic, an occasional top dressing with lime will prove beneficial, as will a handful when planting.

Staking

Stake in April. Semi-circular iron hoops are the best and easiest system.

Caring for peonies

Herbaceous peonies can also be moved and I have several that have lived in various places over the years.

Peonies will live for 50 years or more; although they can survive considerable neglect, they will reward any extra care you can give.

All peonies should be staked with hoop-like metal supports to prevent the flowers from flopping on the ground if heavy rain strikes. They shrug off rain well once staked.

In the wild, Paeonia lactiflora is exposed to the rainy season in June and they do enjoy water in the spring and early summer to swell the buds.

When to deadhead

Deadhead them after flowering and enjoy the high-gloss foliage. This will keep the vigour in the main plant.

Cut down the dead foliage to ground level in autumn and clear it away. Top dress with a handful of bonemeal or general fertiliser.

If any foliage wilts in summer, cut it away and bin it.

When to divide

Division should take place in autumn. Lift the plant and wash off some of the soil and then cut the plant into chunks and replant each piece. Discard any dead pieces of root.

Peonies generally take two years to flower after division.

When to feed

Feed with bone meal or general fertiliser after clearing away the dead foliage after flowering, and then repeat the process in March as growth starts up again.

How to move

You can move peonies very successfully. Tackle it in early autumn as the foliage dies down. Lift the whole plant carefully. If the plants are small re-plant the whole thing, otherwise you can divide it. It will take two years for a replanted peony to flower.

Plant with...

Peonies make the perfect partner for roses and I have four rose and peony borders dedicated to them. Peony and rose foliage and flowers are similar in form and colour, and the peonies flower slightly earlier and then overlap with the roses so they support each other well. I have chosen the modern floribunda rose 'Champagne Moment' for its health and vigour. It was voted Rose of the Year in 2006 and the cream-to-apricot flowers appear from June onwards. 

The peonies flower first and among those I grow are 'Shirley Temple' (a double blush-white), the pale-cream double 'Duchesse de Nemours', the magenta-flecked white 'Festiva Maxima' and the pale-pink 'Sarah Bernhardt'. I also want to grow 'Felix Crousse' - a double magenta and Lady Alexandra Duff - a lavender-pink semi-double.

Peonies also mingle well with early perennials including campanulas, astrantias and early flowering hardy geraniums like the deep-blue 'Orion'.

Peony varieties

Paeonia lactiflora 'Moonstone'
Although it looks like an English rose, it’s an American variety from 1943 and it was awarded a Gold Medal by The American Peony Society in 1959. The strong stems support full flowers that fade to a softer pink and the flowers look translucent in evening light. Given good fertile soil this peony will flower well and these long-lived plants all have handsome foliage, so they have long-lasting presence in a border.

Paeonia lactiflora 'Red Charm'
An American Gold Medal winner that was bred in 1944. The deep-red flowers have a feathered middle and Kelways are raising all her plants.

Paeonia officinalis x lactiflora hybrid 'Buckeye Bell'
Red flower that is often seen popping up through bronze fennel. The cup-shaped flowers are produced early in the peony season. This is another American peony bred in 1956, but it was only awarded a Gold Medal by The American Peony Society in 2010.

Paeonia lactiflora 'White Wings'
A dainty single white peony. Single-flowered peonies will flower in shade, unlike the fuller flowered ones.

Did you know...?

The name 'officinalis' is an indicator that this plant was once used medicinally and peony is actually named after Paeon the physician of the Gods according to Pliny. The roots were recommended for twenty different ailments in Ancient Greece. So powerful were they, the roots could only be dug up at night lest a woodpecker pecked out your eyes.

Peony roots were also revered medicine for the Romans and they almost certainly brought them to Britain. The round root of P. officinalis was used to treat 'feminine' problems and the long tapering root of the Paeonia mascula was for 'male' illnesses. However by the time The Mayflower sailed in 1620 the Pilgrim Fathers were taking peonies for purely decorative reasons. Many old varieties survive in abandoned American homesteads.

Most of the handsome varieties we grow are bred from Paeonia lactiflora, commonly called Chinese peonies. These are mainly white, or pale-pink through to magenta and many literally have milky flowers (lactiflora).This peony arrived here in 1784 when Joseph Banks was sent one by a German naturalist - Peter Pallas. It was taller and the foliage was better and it soon eclipsed the cottage garden peony in the style stakes.

The French connection

Many named P. lactiflora cultivars were bred in the nineteenth century, especially in France, and this is why some wonderful older peonies have French names. 'Duchesse de Nemours' (bred by Calot in 1856)is a scented cream-white double and possibly still the best of all.

Kelways and Peony Valley

One British nursery, Kelways of Langport, sold millions right up until the First World War. They were so popular, the London to Penzance railway stopped at Peony Valley Halt every June so that passengers could disembark and admire the ten-acre field - which is still open to visitors today.(www.kelways.co.uk)

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