In the Garden:
New England
April, 2012
Regional Report

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My tree peony is stunning in full bloom, in spite of its bargain price!

Peony Perfection

Let's talk fantasy for a moment -- garden fantasy that is. Mine (when I buy that winning lottery ticket, of course!) is to have the space to plant and, more important, the garden staff to care for, entire gardens devoted to one kind of flower -- those plants that, though they may be in bloom only for a few weeks, are so spectacular that a gardenful takes your breath away. Some may yearn for rhododendron walks or vast beds of tulips. My fantasies are filled with peonies.

I have loved peonies since I was a small child. Planted years before by a previous owner, the garden in my childhood home boasted a long row of herbaceous peonies that burst into beautiful bloom every June in spite of years of benign neglect. Much later, when I had gardens of my own, peonies were among the first flowers I planted. Although their bloom season is relatively brief, they are so gorgeous that I couldn't imagine a garden without them.

And once in the ground, peonies are undemanding, thriving for years -- even decades -- in the same spot with only minimal care. In fact, the hardest thing when it comes to peonies is choosing which ones to plant, since there are so many varieties, each lovelier than the next. After much deliberation, I managed to chose the five herbaceous peonies that grace my garden now. The single, deep pink blossoms of 'Seashell' have a satiny texture and midseason bloom time. Late midseason 'Red Goddess' has semi-double flowers of a deep, rich crimson color whose bloom time overlaps that of neighboring deep cobalt-blue 'Vi Luhn' Siberian iris, creating a stunning picture. Double-flowered, ivory-white 'Mrs. Frank Beach' produces its fragrant, rose-type blooms late, while 'Krinkled White' unfurls its single, pure white blossoms early. Dark pinkish-red 'Constance Moore' is a Japanese flower type with a "puff" of narrow guard petals around the stamens in the center of the open blossom. I chose primarily singles and semi-doubles because they are better at holding their flowers aloft through wind and rain, although all my peonies get support from wire peony rings put in place just as their foliage emerges.

My peonies are older varieties that were purchased close to twenty years ago; some have been moved around the garden and others continue to bloom in their original spots, but all look lovely when they open their blossoms in late spring and early summer.

After these plants went in, I managed to restrain my peony longings -- I only have so much garden space -- until I saw a tree peony. Then I was really smitten. If the blossoms of herbaceous peonies are eye-catching, the huge blossoms of tree peonies are knock-your-socks-off. But what actually knocked my socks off was the price tag! Tree peonies and their cousins, the intersectional peonies, generally have heart-stoppingly high prices, often in the neighborhood of $100 or more.

Here perhaps we need a few definitions. Herbaceous peonies are probably the most familiar. These old favorites die back to the ground each winter like most perennials. Tree peonies are shrubs with a woody structure. While they lose their leaves, they don't die back to the ground in the winter, bloom earlier than herbaceous peonies, are usually taller, and are not quite as winter hardy, to Zone 4 rather than Zone 3. The newest peonies on the scene are intesectional peonies, also called Itoh peonies after the Japanese plantsman who bred them, that are a cross between tree and herbaceous peonies. They die back to the ground in the winter, but have the larger, more spectacular blooms of a tree peony. Intersectionals are generally lower than the other kinds of peonies, making them well-suited to the front of a border, flower for an extended period toward the end of the herbaceous peony bloom season, and offer an array of varieties with yellow and gold flowers -- colors that are hard to come by in other herbaceous peonies.

While I longed to add a tree peony to my garden, it's price just didn't fit in my budget. Then I found an unnamed pink one for sale at a local nursery for a very reasonable price, so I snatched it up. But why, I wondered, do most cost so much more? It turns out that tree peonies are slow to establish, so they are usually started by grafting the tree peony top onto an herbaceous peony rootstock. Once the tree peony has developed a strong root system of its own, it is then cut away from the herbaceous rootstock, replanted, then grown for another couple of years before being offered for sale. All this care costs money.

To shave costs, some (less scrupulous) growers skip these last steps and sell the tree peony with the herbaceous rootstock intact. This isn't desirable because shoots can arise from the vigorous herbaceous rootstock that can eventually overwhelm the slower growing tree peony top. After a couple of years, I did notice shoots coming up at the base of my plant with tell-tale herbaceous peony foliage, so I guess I know the reason for my good deal. I'm careful to keep an eye on my plant and cut back any shoots coming up from the rootstock right away, and my tree peony, which has been in my garden for about five years now, seems to be thriving.

I'm going to have to wait for that lottery win before I add more tree and intersectional peonies to my garden, but in the meantime, there is an unusual herbaceous peony species I'm thinking of adding to my landscape. I have seen Paeonia peregrina in bloom at Cady's Falls Nursery in Morrisville, Vermont (, purveyors of many unusual plants and worth a visit for their display gardens alone. Its crimson, cupped blossoms accented with bright golden stamens are a wondrous sight in early June and would make lovely garden companions with my lavender Siberian irises.

Now if I just had some more space and that garden staff...

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