Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Buckeye Belle Peonies Flower

Peonies in recent years an early-flowering, ruby red peony called 'Buckeye Belle' has taken center stage. This semi-double has glossy outer petals that loosely follow the curving contours of a wide brandy glass.

These enclose a ruffled taffeta middle of fimbriate red petals set among golden stamens. The foliage has an emerald green tint. When sunlight strikes, this peony is a jewel in the late-spring border. 'Buckeye Belle' is an American hybrid bred by Walter Mains in 1956 and, despite its age, it has just been awarded the 2009 American Peony Society Award for Landscape Merit.

Its green foliage is inherited from Paeonia officinalis, the long-lived cottage garden peony that survives in so many British gardens, including neglected ones. It reaches 2ft at most and the flowers are usually fully petalled in shades that can vary from white, to pink through to dark red. The flowers open in early May and the darker shades always fade.

The single red species form of P. officinalis has been grown in British gardens for centuries mainly for decoration despite its "officinalis" tag, which usually indicates a medicinal use. Many peonies are used medicinally and the name is derived from an Ancient Greek physician called Paeon who was the first to discover its properties.

The double red form, P. officinalis 'Rubra Plena', was written about enthusiastically by John Parkinson in 1629 and these cottage garden peonies were highly popular until they were knocked off their perch by showier varieties bred from the Chinese species Paeonia lactiflora.

These first arrived here in the early 19th century and French plant breeders, who apparently sourced their plants from England, saw their potential and began breeding and naming P. lactiflora varieties from the mid-19th century onwards. Many were developed for the cut flower trade.

These 19th-century French-bred peonies are still highly regarded and they include the creamy white lemon-scented 'Duchesse de Nemours' (bred by Calot in 1856), 'Felix Crousse' (a magenta-carmine from 1881) and 'Festiva Maxima' - a blush-white, flecked with maroon red raised by Miellez in 1851.

Peony breeding was subsequently carried out by Kelways of Somerset between 1880 and 1920 and the nursery named 500 P. lactiflora varieties. It still carries an excellent range and its 10-acre field, known as Peony Valley, opens to the public every June. In its heyday the railway dropped passengers off at Peony Halt, but you can still see 320 different peonies, with more added every year.

Peonies declined in popularity between the two World Wars in Britain, but they remained popular in America and modern breeding is still centered there. Varieties have also been bred in Holland.

The Chinese P. lactiflora varieties are taller and flower later. They have handsome, glossy foliage and come in a variety of colours, except for rich-red. So the quest to breed a good red hybrid was a holy grail for many. 'Buckeye Belle' flowers easily and reliably, reaching 2½ft. It's early and in certain lights the flowers take on a dark patina in the same way that some dark astrantias do. They almost glower in the border.