In praise of peonies

In praise of Peonies

By Meaghan Howard

Few flowers are as voluptuous and showy as the peony. These old-fashioned favorites rooted in yesterday's gardens are coming on strong in Alaska. Large, blowsy blossoms tumble from clumps of lacy green leaves, blooming in pinks, reds, yellow, whites — and the newest color — coral.

Our love affair with peonies is a long one. Peonies are one of the oldest plants cultivated for their flowers, with roots dating back more than 2,000 years in Europe and the Far East. In China, certain varieties have long been revered for their impressive flowers and medicinal qualities. The Chinese still regard the peony as the "queen of flowers," and it has come to symbolize status and wealth, as well as love, affection and feminine beauty. Peonies were introduced in America in 1548 and have since become a quintessential ingredient of the English country garden.

Today, peonies are like a new old favorite. And it's easy to see why. They're beautiful as borders with their subtly perfumed, yet flamboyant flounces. And peonies offer up a wide variety to choose from – ranging from single, double, semi-double, Japanese and others. (This typing refers to the number of layers of petals; the most common is the double peony.) Many varieties of lovely single-flowered peonies and those on strong stems have removed the problem of floppiness after a storm.

Peonies

Since peonies come in so many colors, pick your favorite. Julie Riley, a horticulture agent with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Extension Office, says "people are enamored with the yellows." Riley's favorite are peonies with coral blooms, though they tend to produce less flowers.

If you plant a peony you are likely to produce years of joy from the plant. "Once you plant a peony it could be in the ground for 50 years," Riley says. But it's not quite as easy as it sounds. While peonies survive the harsh Alaskan winters quite well, they are particular about where and how you plant them.

Steph Daniels, a greenhouse manager at Bell's Nursery in Anchorage, says common problems customers come to them with after purchasing peonies deal with the location and the depth they were planted at. Peonies cannot be planted deeper than what you purchase them at; if you buy a plant in a pot, like what Bell's sells, make sure to keep the plant no deeper than what it was planted at. And peonies like full sun, preferably south facing. "They're picky," Daniels says. But once established, they are fairly carefree.

If you can make your peony happy, expect a few years of patience before you get show-stopping blooms. "In the first year rarely will you get more than one or two blooms," Daniels says. But if you can stand the wait, in three to five years you will have an incredible show featuring full and showy blooms. Choose the right mix of varietals, and you can have an amazing show until August. (According to research, the pink 'Sarah Bernhardt' seems to be the best species to grow in Alaska.)

It's this wide range of flowering achieved in Alaska that has started a project where peonies are going to be grown as a cash crop for export. Riley says the flowers can be grown from Homer to Fairbanks. "15,000 peonies have already been planted in the ground to be harvested for the international flower market," Riley says. Why Alaska? Because while the rest of the world's peonies are flowering in the spring to early summer, Alaskan summers see most peony blooms from July to August, creating a handy supply when the rest of the supply is depleted.

Growing Peonies

With a little patience and correct placement, growing peonies can be smooth sailing.

Here are some tips:

Peonies love a sunny location, but will put up with partial shade. Planted in a shady area, it may take up to two years to become well established and produce flowers.

Peonies

Peonies should generally be planted in the fall, so their roots can take hold. If you plant in the spring, make sure to buy a containerized plant, not a bare root one. Riley recommends you ask the nursery if the plant has been wintered in the pot if you are planting in the spring to make sure the roots are established enough to survive.

Peonies should not be planted too deeply. Leave 2" soil over the top-most eye (the red bud-like shoots at the top of the crown). Planting deeper will eliminate flowering, or buds will turn brown and never open. If purchased in a container, plant the peony at the level it was planted in the container. They prefer a soil pH of around 6.

Good drainage is key for peonies. They don't tolerate moisture settling around or near the crown. They shouldn't be planted in gravel or sand, but the medium should provide good drainage and should not allow the roots to become soggy. Consider a raised area of up to 6 inches or a slight slope.

Most peonies need support – such as hoops and stakes – to prevent the stems from flopping under the weight of their flowers. Planting in locations protected from the wind helps, as does planting varieties with strong stems.

Bring the show indoors

Peonies are outstanding as fresh-cut flowers – a half dozen fully opened blossoms will easily fill a vase with long lasting color. When you cut peonies for the house, pick the flowers before they are fully open. The buds should feel like soft marshmallows. Cut the stems long but leave at least two leaves on the plant below the cut. Removing more foliage will sacrifice future plant growth. Do not immediately put freshly harvested stems in water – wait about 20 minutes. Recut the stems under warm water and strip off any leaves that would contact water in the vase. Place in water with a floral preservative or food. The flowers should open within a day of being placed in a vase. Peonies handled and stored in this manner will keep up to four weeks.