for the North
Vase of Mixed Herbaceous Peonies (photo by Joan Shaw)
A Pleasant Surprise!
he first spring after we came to this place thirty-three years ago, I discovered hidden behind an earth-covered root cellar a clump of reddish spears pushing their way up through the ground. During the days following I watched the spears elongate, split, and then unfurl into bronzy-green, deeply segmented, rather leathery leaves with prominent veins. We had a peony!
A rank novice at gardening at this time, I nevertheless knew peonies. My mother had peonies in her tiny backyard garden in Gloucester, New Jersey, and I had a faint recollection of peonies in my great grandmother's garden in nearby Williamstown when I was four or five years old. This peony here in my new home turned out to be a double form of the well-beloved and much-planted Memorial Day peony (Paeonia officinalis ), a nice red, and was most likely similar to the one I remembered in my great grandmother's garden.
I remembered the peonies in my mother's garden as quite fragrant, however, and not necessarily red. They were rather bigger, too. These red jobs were not fragrant at all – a disappointment, though their loosely double crimson blooms were nevertheless precious and not only because of their cheerful burst of optimism in what I, an exile from the green and lush East, felt was uncomfortably close to a desert. (And, in fact, Cache Valley's climate is classified a semi-arid, with an average precipitation of only seventeen inches a year.)
The flowers were also precious to me because I suspected they had been planted by the original owners of the place, early settlers of the 1870s. It turned out, as I described elsewhere , that the original owners of this place were indeed settlers who filed a claim for land here in Lewiston in year 1870 and lived in a dugout for the first year located in the cut bank above the Cub River below. I assumed they'd been planted by the wife (her name was Olivia) with all the need for a garden that this long ago settler felt as she carved out a new life for her family so very far from home. At that time in my life, it was a sentiment not very far from my own.
Allan Rogers writes, in his comprehensive book, Peonies , of the settlers coming West in covered wagons during the nineteenth century tucking into the wagon's limited space a dormant peony eye with attached root called by the women gardeners a "piney toe."
Such roots were more likely to be Paeonia officinalis, explains Rogers, which "strikes adventitious buds (buds developing from an unusual position, as from a branch or a stem). Such a root," he goes on, "can send up new growth and thus even if the first year's growth is lost, the plant can recover the next year and thrive." Almost every covered wagon, even handcarts, held precious plant material from the East traveling to new homes in the West.
Moreover, the P. officinalis, like peonies in general, is a hardy plant that tolerates the alkaline soil here very well. As the English gardener, Christopher Lloyd, points out in his book, The Well Tempered Garden , "Peonies, both herbaceous and shrubby, are out-and-out chalk-(alkaline) lovers." Because of their thick fleshy roots, they're also notably drought tolerant. Finally, they seem to thrive on neglect and, like old lilac shrubs, one finds clumps of them still thriving by foundations of long-collapsed houses, in cemeteries, and growing robustly among weeds. Moreover, they're among the longest lived plants in the garden, some clumps living from fifty to one hundred years old or more.
That first blessed clump of peonies has long since been divided and moved to other beds including the beds of my daughter's garden close by in her restored Granary. And, after a mild winter, they usually do bloom around Memorial Day, as is suitable to their common name.
A Word about Paeonia officinalis
he P. officinalis, believed to be an early, perhaps natural, hybrid, dates back to the late Middle Ages. It was a favorite of many Dutch painters, although the more important subjects for these paintings were the seed pods. Like the Apothecary Rose (Rosa gallica officinalis), the seeds and roots of our old fashioned P. officinalis were valued by healers of the Middle Ages for their medicinal use – for curing gall stones and jaundice, for easing labor and gastric problems, for nightmares and epilepsy, even for lunacy.
Paeonia lactiflora Hybrid, 'Sorbet' (photo by Larry Cannon)
Use of the peony in medicine continues in present-day China, using mainly Paeonia lactiflora. Rogers includes a fascinating section on the medicinal uses of the peony root and seeds by two researchers into Chinese medicine. They report that there are hundreds of acres in China devoted to peony culture – both herbaceous and tree peonies – and that roots and seeds contain bacteriostatic agents (which prevent or inhibit the growth of bacteria), antipyretic agents (which prevent or inhibit pus formation and thus fever), and anticonvulsant agents. Extracts from roots and seed have been shown, also, to inhibit the effects of allergic hypersensitivity that lead to fatal anaphylactic shock.
As a symbol, the peony plant and blossoms have a long and beautiful history in Chinese painting and porcelain production. It has been shown to represent feminine beauty and, perhaps because of its exuberant and long-lasting flowers, of wealth.
A Proliferation of Hybrids
uring the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, hybridization of P. officinalis with Paeonia lactiflora and other wild and Asian types produced, among others, the lovely pure white 'Duchesse de Nemours' (1856), the wine-red 'Karl Rosenfield' (1908), the pink, sweetly fragrant 'Sarah Bernhardt' (1906), and the ever-popular 'Festiva Maxima' (1851). Among the many white, pink, coral, and deep red peonies in our garden, the 'Festiva Maxima' has always been my favorite. From three plants ordered some thirty years ago, three separate plantings are now growing vigorously from divisions. These 'Festiva Maxima' blossoms measure between seven and eight inches across, and are packed with creamy white petals with just a sprinkling of pinkish red in the middle (see Larry's lovely study of 'Festiva Maxima' above).
Peonies can be found in the wild all over Asia, Europe, Africa, and North America. Wild tree peonies, however, can only be found in China. Tree peonies differ from herbaceous peonies in that they have woody stems that don't die back, but rather go dormant and sprout leaves and buds again in the spring. They also grow much taller and spread much wider than herbaceous peonies. Two tree peonies that my daughter, Melanie, planted when a girl twenty years ago have trunks measuring an inch and a half in diameter and measure some five feet tall. The semi-double blooms measure some ten or more inches across when fully open.
Melanie's semi-double light pink tree peony (photo by Melanie Shaw)
Herbaceous peonies, on the other hand, die back each fall, and sprout again from buds formed underground. They make excellent low hedges after their bloom is past, for their dark, leathery leaves are quite tough and long-lasting.
Peony hybridization has proceeded, indeed accelerated in the last half of the twentieth century, many crossed with the Asian types, resulting in a spectacular choice of garden plants. Among the more recent hybrids are the Japanese types, represented in our garden by the fragrant 'Bowl of Beauty' and the lactiflora hybrid, 'Sorbet' (shown above in Larry's photo).
Caring for Peonies
he peony is easy to grow and easy to care for, provided the gardener follows some simple rules. Below is a summary of these rules laid down by Alice Harding in her seminal (1917) work on the peony entitled, naturally enough, The Peony, which still hold true today.
1. Make sure your soil is nonacid, loosened by cultivation, and well drained.
2. Make sure the bed will receive at least six hours of sun a day.
3. Plant your peony roots flat, two or three feet apart (depending on the size of the plant), and cover with no more than an inch or two of soil. In zones 4 or 5 or below, potted tree peonies should be planted lower than the soil line in the pot. Tree peonies are grafted plants and it's always safer to allow the valuable upper stem grow a bit of its own roots before a heavy frost. Also, tree peonies should be covered with three or four inches of mulch and a basket of some kind through the first winter. Herbaceous peonies need just a covering a light mulch after planting and after the first heavy frost.
4. The best time to do this planting is in the autumn, although potted peonies can be found in nurseries in the spring, and it's perfectly fine to plant them at that time. Just be sure to mulch and cover them during that first winter.
5. If the gardener is lucky enough to find wild peonies to purchase, by no means fertilize them. Herbaceous peonies, however, do well with a slow release fertilizer like well-rotted manure, dried steer manure, bone meal, or dressed with compost. Tree peonies need a mineral fertilizer only. Most garden centers will have boxed or bagged fertilizers with lists of ingredients and flowering plants for which they're most effective.
6. Clean and carry away ripened stems of herbaceous peonies in the fall to guard against Botrytis.
Or you might like Allan Rogers' advice
better: "Successful peony growing requires little more than good
and a climate with weather cold enough to satisfy dormancy requirements
-- with a bit of fertile soil thrown into the mix for good measure."
Melanie's semi-double dark pink tree peony (photo by Melanie Shaw)
Joan Katherine Shaw
The Peony: a seminal work by well beloved horticulturist and peony lover of the early 1900s, Alice Harding, revised and reprinted with an introduction by hybridist Roy G. Klehm, and containing peony lore found nowhere else
The Well Tempered Garden: a treasure-trove of gardening information by the English gardener, Christopher Lloyd.; an indispensable staple for any gardening library
Peonies: Allan Rogers owns Caprice Farm Nursery in Sherwood, Oregon, and is a longtime hybridizer. His book contains 143 color plates of peonies, 183 pages of peony descriptions and dates of introduction, an essay on landscaping with peonies by well known landscape authority Linda Engstrom, and an appendix containing nursery sources
Peonies: Another ravishing book on peonies with some fantastic artwork. Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall traces the peony through the courts of Imperial China and Japan and the peony's use in painting and porcelain.
The Gardener's Guide to Growing Peonies: One reference among many in the excellent series of Gardener's Guides – a down-to-earth, step-by-step companion in growing these well-loved plants
The Book of Tree Peonies: Gian Lupo Osti, the author of this lovely book, is another hybridizer and researcher in the genus, this time of tree peonies. In this book he takes the reader on trips to asia in his history and search of tree peonies. Beautiful photography.
Link for browsing for more peony books:
Some on-line sources for peony plants:
Gardens, South Carolina
White Flower Farm, Connecticut
Klehm's Song Sparrow Perennial Farm, Illinois
Caprice Farm Nursery, Oregon
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