The other amazing thing about this group of plants is their hardiness, making them ideal candidates for interior and northern B.C. gardens. In fact, I have a hunch that peonies are happier there than on our moist west coast. Like so many other garden flowers, there are countless cultivars of this genus, which from a home gardener's point of view, is divided into two main groups. The perennial type, which dies back to the ground each fall, is Paeonia lactiflora. The so-called tree peony, which is actually more shrubby in form, is Paeonia suffruticosa. Both come to us from China where the blossoms are highly revered and peony festivals celebrate this cherished flower on an annual basis. Peonies are tolerant of all soil types and quite happy in alkaline soil. Their only major quirk is that they detest being moved and may actually sulk for several seasons before flowering. At the UBC Botanical Garden, we received a wonderful collection of peonies from Nanjing Botanical Garden in China. These were duly planted with loving care but still took five years to settle down and bloom. This quirk is definitely worth noting, as so many of us are compulsive plant movers. Think long and hard about where your peony will fare best and can be left untouched for years to come. The very word peony conjures up memories of old-fashioned gardens, at this time of year when the sun begins to feel truly summer-like, and the air is heavy with the fresh scent of new growth. Since I moved to Canada, peonies have also prompted my admiration for their longevity. I have visited many an abandoned homestead on the Prairies, where in among the long grass and weeds, the nosegay-sized flowers of peonies still survive, looking as beautiful as ever. Like so many perennials, they enjoy an open, sunny location with well-drained soil. They establish well if given some well-rotted manure or compost. Peonies are either sold bare root in bags of sawdust early in the spring or as established plants in gallon-size pots at just about flowering time, usually late May to early June. They are quite particular about how deeply they are planted. The buds or crowns of the bare-rooted type should be no deeper than 2.5 centimetres below the soil surface. You should prepare and fill the planting hole up to three weeks ahead of time so that the soil can settle in, which will eliminate the settling afterwards that can cause the crowns to sink too deeply. With pot-grown peonies, it is slightly easier to achieve the right depth, as you obviously can't plant them any deeper than the soil surface inside the pot. If you check any book on peonies, all the cultivars have wonderful names such as 'Angel Cheeks,' 'Bowl of Beauty,' 'Peppermint Stick' and 'Coral Charm,' to name but a few. Even with such sweet, gentle names, peonies are a group of plants that definitely need staking. Without support, the heavy spring showers will fill the blossoms with water and soon drag them face down into the soil. There are specially designed metal stake kits on the market, but being old-fashioned, I prefer using twiggy brushwood to support any top-heavy perennial. Save leafless branches pruned from shrubbery during fall or early spring, as soon as the new growth buds show through the surface of the soil. Push the twigs (which should be at least 60 to 90 centimetres in length) into the ground around the plant so it looks like a dead bush. As the plant grows, it will come up through the twigs, hiding the supports, and carry its flowers just above them. If you are worried about the twigs poking you in the eye (this tip came from a friend), use old grapevine prunings instead. Leave them longer and push both ends into the ground to create a series of vertical hoops through which the peonies will grow. Peonies are susceptible to all kinds of fungal diseases, particularly on the coast. With the perennial type, cut old foliage right down to soil level after the first frost, leaving no telltale stumps. With tree peonies, again remove all foliage after the first frost, or by mid-November, whichever comes first. And should any signs of fungal infection show up early in spring, prune them out at least five centimetres below the infection. Probably one of the oldest peonies known in western gardens is the European Paeonia officinalis, which features deep-red or deep rose-pink flowers above very shiny dark-green foliage. I once saw a magnificent planting of them in Montreal where they were in a well-established mass underplanted with dark-blue Campanula glomerata (clustered bellflower). The effect was quite stunning and would be easy to duplicate in a larger perennial border. Peonies also lend themselves well to being incorporated into a mixed perennial bed or border. Again in Montreal, I saw a lovely townhouse terrace garden that had all the old favourite perennials such as pyrethrum daisies (Tanacetum), evening primrose (Oenothera) and pinks (Dianthus). Right in the middle was a clump of 'Bowl of Beauty,' that lovely pink single peony with a dense creamy-white centre made up of a dense cluster of tiny petaloids. The foliage is good and strong, mid-green in colour and very pleasing. Having mentioned peony foliage, it should be noted that all of the lactiflora group's leaves remain strong and interesting throughout the growing season. Late in the season, they turn gorgeous autumnal shades, allowing them to work wonderfully in cut flower arrangements.
There are many beautiful species in this group of plants, one of my favourites being Paeonia mlokosewitschii, which hails from the Caucasus Mountains. It is a strong-growing, erect perennial with glaucous bluish-green foliage and single bowl-shaped lemon-yellow flowers measuring up to 12 centimetres across. Because it has such a difficult name to pronounce it is fondly called Molly the Witch. For those of you living in the southern interior, look for Paeonia tenuifolia, the fern-leaved peony. It gets its name from the fact that the foliage is deeply cut in linear segments resembling a fern. It tends to be no taller than 60 centimetres, with somewhat weaker flower stems so that the flowers nod over, particularly with the double form. My photo of them on the opposite page looks as if it is upside down. If you are tempted to grow this one on the coast, put it in a hot, sunny location. A quick mention about the Chinese tree peonies: They have the most delicious flowers that unfold like tissue paper and look just like an Oriental scroll painting. They require similar soil conditions as their perennial cousins, but it must be emphasized that they need a well-drained location - they soon die in soggy, waterlogged soil. Again, think long and hard about their placement in the garden. I had a friend who kept one in a pot and just moved it around her garden for the first season until she was sure she had found the perfect spot. David Tarrant is a well-known gardening expert, author, and host of Spring, currently on HGTV. Related link:Video on planting peonies.