As American peony grower Allan Rogers writes, "Peonies, the genus Paeonia, are native to Morocco and Spain across the mountainous regions of Europe and the Mediterranean, through the Caucasus to central Asia, on into China and Japan and even the western United States" (Rogers, p. 45). Peonies have been cultivated for centuries both in Europe and Asia.
Within the genus Paeonia there are two distinct groups. First there are tree peonies. Characterized by their woody growth, tree peonies originate in the remote areas of China and have only recently become more available to gardeners. They can grow into one to six foot flowering shrubs, but they are only considered hardy to USDA Zone 4.
Second are the herbaceous peonies which die to ground level in the fall. Their return each year brings rich blooms during the transition from spring into summer; their shiny foliage continues to anchor a perennial bed after the blooms have faded. Most herbaceous cultivars are able to grow successfully in the Zones 2-3 cold of northern Ontario and their long history of cultivation has resulted in a diversity of flower form, colour and fragrance.
Peonies are an excellent plant choice for the gardener doing battle with deer and rabbits. One nibble and these animals are likely to leave peonies alone, thanks to the bitter-tasting "phenol compounds found in the plant's foliage and flowers" (Rogers, p. 7).
Many avid gardeners find themselves fascinated with a particular plant species. For Master Gardener Eloise Rodger, it's the peony in its many cultivated forms that has captured her imagination.
A visit to Eloise's garden when these beauties are in bloom is a summer highlight. Last month Eloise generously agreed to a tour and a chat about her collection of herbaceous peonies. As we walked, Eloise easily named each cultivar, its development date and the name of the plant breeder.
How long have you gardened in this location?
A: "I've gardened here since 1976. We bought the property and Bob built the house; then I began the surrounds. First was lawn – that was essential to keep it clean – and then I began flowerbeds. So it's a long process. My first peony was purchased in 1978."
What is the exposure and hardiness zone?
A: "I am a Zone 2b, very exposed to winds. If we don't have a good snow cover, I do lose plants. Freeze-thaw is bad for peonies, especially freeze-thaw in late December. But generally peonies are lasters. That's why I have chosen them.
"We have put in a red pine windbreak in the west and the north is pretty good because it's bush. There is a wind tunnel in the back area; the wind strips the snow off the beds. I put styrofoam boxes over the peonies in this area to protect them."
What is it about growing peonies that captures your interest?
A: "From a practical point, peonies are winter-hardy and that appeals to me very much. I can't abide losses! Then it's the selection; there's the singles, the doubles, and the colours.
"My interest has developed a lot more since I joined the Peony Society. I have attended their annual meetings and exhibited. The highest award I've received is third prize."
How do you prepare peony blossoms for exhibit?
A: "The date for a show may be in two weeks. I don't know what's going to be open, but I do know this flower is in bud and it's soft like a marshmallow. I cut it, wrap it in paper towel and in a full plastic seal, and put it in a cooler. The day before the show, you take it out, snip the end, put it in water, and voilà , it should open. It doesn't always work.
"With flower judging, the flower that just opened this morning – the freshest – is the one that's going to win the prize."
What do you do to prepare your plants for winter?
A: "I cut back the foliage and I burn it. I don't want any disease like botrytis [the fungus, Botrytis paeoniae] to carry on into another season. I've got into the habit of cutting down the whole flowerbed because I have so much to do in the spring. In the fall, I empty my compost onto all my beds as a mulch."
If someone was going to start growing peonies, what advice would you offer?
A: "I recommend a good well-dug flowerbed with good soil. When peonies are newly planted you don't want to give them too much fertilizer. If you start off with good soil that is well-dug, you really don't have to do much. Just top them up with compost once a year.
Give them space [one metre of growing room]; don't crowd them. In two years time, it will fill that space."
What plant sources do you rely on for purchasing peonies?
A: "I have used all the vendors listed on the Canadian Peony Society website.
"I have purchased from La Pivoinerie d'Aoust in Quebec and Blossom Hill Nursery near Peterborough."
Eloise Rodger is the Coordinator of the Thunder Bay & District Master Gardeners.
Photo credit: Final image - Eloise Rodger; all other images -There Blooms a Garden
Resource for this post: Rogers, A. (1995). Peonies.Timber Press: Portland, OR.
Want to learn more about peonies?
Read 'Peony Cultural Requirements' (Canadian Peony Society)
Read 'What to Plant under Peonies'
Visit La Pivoinerie d'Aoust website for growing notes and links to instructional videos