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A couple of weeks ago one of the prettiest flowers in the garden started to bloom. This great cut-leaf Japanese peony, Paeonia tenuifolia, opened its simple ruby-colored petals to reveal bright yellow stamen. The finely cut foliage, reminiscent of the most finely cut foliage of a Japanese maple, allows the plant to be interesting in the mixed border the rest of the growing season, too.
There are four peony classifications based on bloom type: single peonies have one or two rows of petals with centered yellow stamen; semi-double peonies have three to four whorls of petals with stamen that appear randomly throughout the bloom; double forms have ruffled petals that fill the center; and Japanese peonies (also called anemone-form because of their anemone-like appearance) which have single or semi-double flowers with yellow petal-like stamen in the center.
Most garden-variety peonies bloom in May…but you can extend the season with some earlier blooming species, including many of the Japanese types. And consider the tree peony, the Cadillac of the genus. Any serious peony connoisseur must have a collection of tree peonies. Unlike the herbaceous variety, the tree peony is a woody shrub sporting enormous blooms in late April and into May. Both tree and herbaceous peonies are long-lived in the garden.
Peonies are often sold as bare-root plants; which works to the consumer’s advantage, really, because you can see exactly what you are getting. When it comes to peony blooms it is all about the eyes and the roots reveal the story. You want plants that have at least three thick roots with three to five red “eyes”; these eyes or buds become the stems of the peony foliage, which should sport blooms in the spring.
Here in lies the conundrum with peonies: sometimes they can be finicky bloomers. Newly planted peonies often take two to three years to bloom, longer if you have less than three eyes. Problems can also be blamed on planting depth, which is the most common culprit. The red “eyes” should not be much deeper than one and a half inches beneath the soil surface. The roots of peonies need to be sufficiently “chilled” during the winter months in order to set bud.
There are some fungal problems that adversely affect peony blooms, as well. Botrytis blight is not uncommon and is evidenced by spotty foliage and flower buds that dry up before fully forming. Using a fungicide labeled for use on peonies can control the fungus that causes the blight. Make the application in the very early spring just as the foliage begins to emerge.
As with most blooming plants, a minimum of six hours of direct sun light a day is required for peonies to bloom. Afternoon shade, during the hottest part of the day, is desirable and will protect the foliage from sun scorch and the blooms from excessive fading, plus they’ll last longer. Deadhead blooms as they fade and this will help the plant maintain form. Peonies so often splay out after spring rains so deadheading and using plant support rings are nearly a must to keep them looking good in the garden.
Select a sunny, well-drained location with at least a three-foot diameter to allow the foliage and root system plenty of room for growth. Crowded plants never do well because they compete for moisture and nutrients. Dig a deep hole so you can amend the soil by adding compost. Peonies in good soil do great, peonies in poor soil still seem to perform well enough so they are not a finicky as their reputation suggest.
Peonies do best if they are left undisturbed but if you do need to divide the ideal time is in the fall, however I dug some this spring and threw them in a mulch pile for replanting later and they don’t seem weary for the spring dig.