by Margaret Gratz

Centuries ago, some unknown explorer with an obvious eye for beauty and a passion for flowers traveled to China and returned with the bare root tuber of a peony. Weary from his long and perilous journey, the explorer planted the tuber in his cottage garden, and when the peonies bloomed, he was the envy of all his neighbors. This exquisite flower that has been cultivated in China for more than 2000 years has now found its way around the world and is at home in the gardens of North America.

Because peonies require cold winters, many Southern gardeners are wary of planting peonies, but do not let that discourage you. There are many varieties of peonies that flourish in the South, and if planted properly and in the right location, will last for centuries.

In the Upper South where the winters are predictably cold, the varieties of peonies from which to choose are numerous. The farther south you go, the more limited the choices. But regardless of your proximity to the Mason-Dixon Line, if planting peonies for the first time, I would begin with the tried-and-true. Three fail-proof varieties of peonies that have been around for awhile are 'Festiva Maxima', introduced in 1851, and 'Sarah Bernhardt', introduced in 1906, and 'Monsieur Jules Elie'. These three old-fashioned peonies will bloom throughout the South.

In the warmer parts of Zone 7 and all of Zone 8, early blooming and mid-blooming varieties of peonies are recommended. Some newer varieties of peonies that do well in warmer areas are: 'Miss America', 'Do Tell', 'Coral Charm', 'Big Ben' and 'Kansas'.


Planting Peonies

Peonies are grouped according to shape. They can be single, semidouble, anemone or double-flower forms. Peonies only bloom for about two weeks, but by planting early and midseason varieties, the bloom time can be extended. Select the varieties that will grow best in your plant zone.

Fall is the best time to plant peonies, especially tubers, but container-grown peonies can be planted in spring or fall. They should be planted in full sun in well-drained beds. Some gardeners plant peonies in rows, while others mix them with other plants in the perennial border. Peonies should not be planted deeply, and if planting tubers, the tuber should be only an inch or two below the soil. And be sure to plant the "eyes" up.

To protect from the extreme heat of the South, peonies should be mulched in the summer, but in the winter, the mulch should be removed so that the roots are exposed to the cold. Unlike most of our garden plants, peonies revel in a cold, wintry day.

Peonies do not require very much fertilizer. In fact, if too much fertilizer is applied, you may end up with more foliage than flowers. Some gardeners do recommend an annual application of bonemeal and a top dressing of wood ashes in late winter. But be judicious with the application of fertilizer. Most peonies seem to thrive on benign neglect.

If peonies do have a structural flaw, it is that the stems sometimes cannot support the large, copious blossoms. To support the flowers, peony rings or stakes are recommended, but remember to stake them before the plants get too large.

As soon as the flowers begin to fade, deadhead the blossoms. After the peonies have bloomed, the foliage is still quite attractive but will die back in the fall. The brown leaves should be cut back at this time to discourage disease.

Peonies are relatively pest free. They are susceptible to a few diseases, but if planted in the right location, allowing for good air circulation, this should be a rare occurrence. Some people are concerned about the ants that are often found on peonies, but actually, the ants are harmless. Attracted to the nectar, the ants help discourage the presence of more harmful insects, and there is no need to spray.

Even though peonies are relatively low maintenance, they do not like to be moved, so when selecting a site for planting peonies, consider it to be permanent.


Peonies As Cut Flowers

As far as I am concerned, peonies are the perfect cut flower, for one does not have to be a floral designer to have a beautiful arrangement. Peonies can stand alone on their own beauty. A vase, elegant or rustic, and a little tepid water is all that is required. Peonies certainly do not have to be "arranged."

Peonies should be cut early in the morning. The stems should be scraped and immediately immersed in water. (Be sure to leave at least two leaves on each remaining stem and never cut more that half of the blossoms on each plant or else flower production for the next season will be diminished.) The blooms should last more than a week.

If you want peonies for a special occasion, they can be cut in the bud stage and stored in the refrigerator in a vase or wrapped in newspaper for up to two weeks. When ready to use, remove and recut the stems and place in a warm room for the buds to open.

Growing up in rural North Mississippi, most of the folks who grew peonies were country folk. Passed down as passalong plants for generations, peonies were usually blooming the first week in May, just in time for Mother's Day. This lush, fragrant flower that once bloomed in the gardens of the Imperial Palace in ancient China had found its way down a country road. If I were to take a sojourn down those country roads today, the same peonies could still be there ready to bloom for one more Mother's Day. The peony is a flower that can easily outlive the gardener and bring beauty and fragrance to another generation.


(Click on any photo to enlarge.)

Margaret Gratz from Tupelo writes the monthly "Earth Lady" column about the natural world and the weekly "Wildflower Watch" column for the North Mississippi Daily Journal, and she has written for other publications, including Birdwatchers' Digest and Mississippi Outdoors. She is an active member of the Tupelo Garden Club.


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