For the Love of Peonies

Few flowers are as voluptuous, showy – and beloved – as the peony. An old-fashioned favorite, peonies evoke memories of springtime and of mothers' and grandmothers' gardens. Perhaps it’s those large, billowy blossoms in a riot of colors – pinks, reds, yellows, corals and brilliant whites – that make them so heart-stoppingly unforgettable. Or, could it be how one peony can fill a room with its delightful scent.

Our love affair with peonies is a long one. Peonies are one of the oldest plants cultivated for their flowers, with roots dating back thousands of years in Europe and the Far East. In China, the peony has long been regarded as the "queen of flowers," and has come to symbolize status and wealth, as well as love, affection and feminine beauty. It was so revered, legend has it that China’s first and only empress, Wu Zetian, got so jealous that she ordered all peonies to be banished from her royal gardens. 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 frills. 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.

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," says Julie Riley, a horticulture agent with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Extension Office. 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.

According to horticulturist Steph Daniels, a common problem occurs when peonies are planted in the wrong location and at the wrong depth. One rule of thumb: If you buy a plant in a pot, make sure to keep the plant no deeper than what it was planted at, she notes. And peonies like full sun, preferably south facing. "They're picky," she says. But once established, they are fairly carefree. (See below for more growing tips.)

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," Steph says. But if you can 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 ever-popular 'Sarah Bernhardt' is one of the best and easiest species to grow in Alaska. This hardy flower produces huge and fragrant dark rose pink blossoms.

It's this wide range of flowering achieved in Alaska that has peony growers excited – from Homer to Fairbanks. Today, peonies are a cash crop for export and the state has roughly 200 commercial peony farms. 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.

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.

Tips for growing success

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 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. 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.