Every Garden should Dazzle with Peonies
There are three things you need to know if you are to succeed with peonies, one of the most spectacular plants in the May garden. Sadly for the peony, many people know only two. Most important is the fact that they must not be planted too deep: 3cm of soil on top of the crown is plenty.
Leaves may fight their way through, but if the plant is lodged suffocatingly deep, it will never flower. If you feel this may be the reason for your peony's failure, lift it in autumn and replant it more shallowly.
The second rule has to do with the peony's temperament. It is an odd mixture of flash-in-the-pan and stayer. The flowers are dramatic and short-lived, but the plant itself, once settled, lives a very long time. When there were still half-ruined cottages in the countryside, BC (before conversion), you would sometimes see the crimson flowers blazing away among nettles and brambles.
Usually it would turn out to be the old double red Paeonia officinalis, or "rubra plena", a cottage garden favourite since the 17th century. Although a peony may survive a century of neglect, it cannot stand being disturbed. If you move into a garden where a clump of peonies is well established, leave it alone.
The third precept is not so vital as the other two, but it makes all the difference between a decent plant and a dazzling one. Peonies appreciate good food, plenty of humus and rotted manure dug into the ground before they are planted, and a liberal measure of bonemeal and mulch at regular intervals afterwards.
Most mail-order specialists send out their plants bare-rooted in autumn; they should be in the ground before Christmas. Make a good big hole when you are ready to plant and settle them in (remembering number one with some good rich soil around the roots).
When it does get into its stride, it may need staking. Do this in early spring before growth is too far advanced. Push twiggy sticks into the ground around the peony, or use two semi-circular supports. Water if the ground gets dry, feed with a slow-release fertilizer in autumn and cut down the stems of herbaceous kinds just at ground level when the leaves have died. Some varieties have well-coloured autumn foliage, so don't be in too much of a hurry to tidy them up. Mulch the following spring.
If peonies could choose, they would give themselves an open sunny spot in soil that is rich and slightly on the heavy side, but certainly not waterlogged. If you have light soil, take particular note of rule number three and feed like mad. They can cope with a partially shaded site but will not flower in deep shade.
They are named after Paeon, physician to the Greek gods. The old European species, P. officinalis, introduced here by the Romans, was a one-stop medicine chest. It was said to cure jaundice, kidney pains, epilepsy, prevent nightmares and lift depression. In the 18th century, Hannah Glasse was still recommending peony roots for weak hearts or stomachs.
It took off as a garden flower in the mid-19th century when a trio of French nurserymen, Jacques Calot, Auguste Dessert and Felix Crousse, and an Englishman, James Kelway, began some fancy cross-breeding. Using P. officinalis and the Chinese species, P lactiflora, they created a whole new race of hybrids with big powder puff flowers. In 1856, Calot introduced the "Duchesse de Nemours'" a double peony of creamy white, sweetly scented, which is still with us. They were followed by another Frenchman, Victor Lemoine, who in 1906 bred the famous pink double peony "Sarah Bernhardt". She's still one of the best peonies around.
Doubles last longer in flower than singles, but are more difficult to stake and keep the right way up in a rainstorm.
As interest in the flower grew, more wild species were introduced into English gardens, including, from the Caucasus, the impossibly named P. mlokosewitschii. Most people just call it Molly the Witch. It has pale single lemon-sherbet coloured flowers over bronze-grey foliage. It is early, sometimes flowering in late April, but not so early as P. tenuifolia, a beautiful species, also from the Caucasus, with fine thread-like foliage and blood red single flowers. In our garden it grows with forget-me-nots and sheaves of leaves from last autumn's colchicums.
The present favourite with garden designers seems to be an American hybrid called "Buckeye Belle", a semi-double peony of zinging bright red. It was bred in 1956, so why has it taken so long to hit the headlines?
My own favourites are peonies with good foliage, such as "Early Windflower", a cross between two species that emerges early, with superb, intricately dissected foliage of deep, burnished bronze. It provides the best possible background to tulips and forget-me-nots, before it even thinks of flowering itself. When it does (single white blooms with a central boss of gold) it is a show stopper. A loud "boo" to those who say peonies aren't worth planting. Every garden should have one.