Peonies are called the queen of garden flowers for their month-long, annual display of huge, scented, single and double blossoms. Ideal for low-maintenance gardens, peonies have large, attractive leaves that stay pretty all season on a 3-foot tall plant. Flower colors include white, cream, pink, coral, red and purple.
The plants need a cold winter and plenty of sun in the summer, though they appreciate some afternoon shade in August. A northern exposure suits them best because a south facing location tends to freeze and thaw several times a winter.
Since peonies prefer to grow underground throughout the winter and emerge early in the spring, they are bought and planted in the fall. Spring planted or transplanted peonies will take an extra year to bloom. Each plant or division should have three or four eyes. If the division has less, the plant will need extra years to grow more eyes before blooming. The most common cause of peonies not blooming is that their eyes were planted more than an inch or two deep.
When deciding what to plant with peonies, remember that they are attractive most of the summer. In his book, “Perennial Combinations,” Cole Burrell calls peonies a hardy, durable, long-lived backbone of the early summer garden. The doubles can become so heavy that gardeners feel obliged to stake the stems.
In Burrell’s planting combination, peonies are grown with Baptisia, goat’s beard, iris, allium, nepeta (catnip), cranesbill (geranium), lamb’s ears, and Honeybells hosta. Europeans brought Paeonia officinalis to America for its herbal and medicinal value. The roots were used to treat female cramps, gout, asthma and nerves. In fact, paenia is named for Paeon, physician of the Olympian gods.
Dried peony roots were carved into jewelry that was thought to provide protection from curses, illness and insanity. Pliny the Elder called peonies the oldest plant because they have been grown in Asia for thousands of years. Chinese peony varieties, grown in Asia since the year 1007, came to American in the 1800s.
To succeed with peonies, plant them high. They do not grow from bulbs but the roots are so fleshy that they can be destroyed if they stay too wet. If the planting area is heavy clay soil, use lots of compost to loosen the soil and give the roots the drainage they need.
In the fall, cut the plants to the ground and dispose of the trimmings in the trash rather than the compost pile. The forms of blight that damage peonies can be prevented by getting rid of all the stems and leaves in the fall. If the plant looks spotty or distressed during the growing season, spray with fungicide.
Ants on the flowers are not a problem unless there are so many that they prevent blooming. If the winter is extremely cold, use straw to mulch around the plant crown. Late in the fall or early in the spring, give them a little 5-10-10 or 10-10-10 fertilizer, about 6-inches away from the root and crown area, avoiding the stems. Peony plants can live more than 100 years in the same location without being divided. With minimal care, they will provide cut flowers and beautiful leaves for decades.