Friday, May 17, 2013

A Peony for Your Thoughts

Soon, very soon, one of the most beautiful garden plants will start blooming and hold on to your garden hat because it’s a thrill you don’t want to miss!

Peony plants either elicit a cry of “love-love-love” or “hate-hate-hate”. I’m totally into the love category for the beauty, fragrance and ease to own.

Few of us haven’t had exposure to grandma’s garden peony and seldom does a peony lover resist the urge to take an offered start. For most of us the peony is so old and been around so long, we’ve no idea the variety’s name. But, OH we do know the fragrance.

The peony requires full sun in the Midwest, fertile soil and good drainage. They don’t like their roots to compete with trees and bushes. These are the main reasons you see a line of peonies situated out in middle of a yard. Once established, they don’t need extra watering because too much water will cause their roots to rot.

To plant a peony, dig an 18 inch hole and then backfill until the top is a few inches below the ground. Water and let it drain. Place the peony on the backfill and make sure you don’t cover more deeply than 1-2 inches below the soil line. Planting too deep will result in rotting, no blooms, or no plant.

Dividing an old peony plant is not for the faint of heart or weak of body. The root system can be massive in weight. Either dig the entire plant (if moving) or take a pie wedge slice if dividing. Throw away any damaged roots. Gently pull away pieces to get a section(s) with 3-5 eyes. Eyes are the little pointed parts where the plant will sprout come spring. To get a whole section of a plant, you must dig down at least the entire shovel length otherwise you’re cutting off a portion of the root. The little points must be facing up.

Planting a potted peony from the nursery is done the same way except don’t remove the soil surrounding the plant. Place the entire soil ball in the ground making sure it’s buried no deeper than the top of the potted soil.

Plant new potted peony plants in the spring and divided old plants in the fall. Peonies planted in the spring tend to stress from the summer heat and don’t do as well. If you want to keep the peonies from flopping (caused by heavy blooms and rain), put a peony hoop or stakes on them as they break ground. Peonies do not like other perennials closer than a foot nor mulch touching their stems. Keep weeds from them because it makes them unhappy to compete. Little divas!

All those rules being said, they may still do wonderfully in an old abandon farm site with little care on what’s perfect.

It takes several years for a newly planted peony to bloom. It is called “pouting” because they don’t like to be moved and they are going to make you pay by not blooming until they get used to the new site. Once established, they can live decades.

Cut off dead blooms (if you haven’t brought every single one into the house) to let the plant put its energy into the roots and not into making seeds; unless, you want to try growing new plants from seed. Cut back entire plant once it wilts in the fall or early in the spring prior to new growth. Don’t pull dead growth as it may pull the entire root from the ground.

Tree peonies look like (wait for it) a small tree. The stem stays all winter, the leaves and flowers returning to the top each spring. Intersectional peonies look like a tree except the entire plant dies back in the winter and reissues a stem/trunk each spring. Herbaceous peonies are the plants grandma had in her garden.

Lore: The ants on your peony buds are not needed for the flower to open. I know grandma said it and it is easy to see why that lore was started. What the ants are doing is dining on the sweet nectar. Dip your flowers gently in a bucket of water for a few seconds; gently shake off the water with the ants before taking into your house. The ant issue is another reason plants are often situated away from the foundation of homes.

There are many old peonies; most historical and a few rare. Some of the really old ones have simply died out prior to anyone taking notice. A few are native to the Western US. I urge you to not destroy old peony bushes. If you are of the “hate-hate-hate” club, give them away. Tell your local garden club, city garden volunteers, neighbors and friends. Someone will most certainly consider it a valuable gift.

For those of us who always want to know “the rest of the story”: The peony is named after Paeon, a student of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine and healing. Asclepius became jealous of his pupil; Zeus saved Paeon from the wrath of Asclepius by turning him into the peony flower. 262 compounds have been used from peonies for things ranging from medicines to flavoring.

Historical, they are known as the “King of Flowers” in Asian culture. Wood nymphs are said to hide in the petals and it is a common subject for tattoos because mythological Asian warrior-heroes had these tats.

As for we mere mortals, the delicate petal colors of white, red, pink, apricot and yellow along with the heady fragrance is all it takes to love this plant.

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