Monday, July 6, 2009

Peonies with wow factor - the eight best varieties

The best peonies to grow for delicious scent, long flowering and fabulous display in the UK

Peonies in a border including Peony  Bowl of Beauty
Peonies in a border at Hanham Court including Peony P. Bowl of Beauty  Photo: JONATHAN BUCKLEY
The time has finally come for me to put in a proper peony bed at my garden at Perch Hill. Every garden and flower arrangement I've seen in the past few weeks has been transformed by Paeonia lactiflora cultivars, which range from pure white to deep pink and into rich crimson, with all shades in between.
There are singles (with one or two layers of petals), semi doubles (with more petals, but you can still clearly see the golden anthers in the flower's centre), Japanese (where the stamens are replaced by narrow petaloid filaments) and the fullest and most spectacular of all – the fully doubles (great puff balls of crumpled petals, row upon row).
So, which of these should one grow? You get the wow factor with almost all, so for my wish list I'd like: delicious scent, a good length of flowering season and strong, healthy, no-hassle growth, which ideally would not need support. As I'm going for eight varieties to plant in my new bed, I want a good balance of flowering times, with some early (in May), some mid season (May into June) and some late (for June into July).
Having talked to plenty of people growing them and chatted to Kelways nurseries and Claire Austin (the two best peony suppliers in Britain), these are the eight I'll be ordering for my October planting.

1 'Duchesse de Nemours' fully double, early flowerer
Truly marvellous, and one of the oldest and most famous double white peonies. It has pure, spotless ivory flowers, lemony green at the base, with the scent of lily of the valley. It's easy to grow and a plentiful flower producer which makes it an excellent cut flower. It's also slightly shorter than others, growing to approx 85cm, making it a great choice for a windy garden.
2 'Charlie's White' fully double, early flowering
Deliciously scented, large rounded white flower with a cream glow on very long, straight stems which rarely need staking. 'Charlie's White' is America's number one cutting variety. It makes a vigorous and healthy plant, which is quite light cropping, but easy to grow.
3 'Krinkled White' single, early to mid season flowering
A very beautiful, simple white peony, considered by some to be even better than the similar, shade-tolerant and iconic 'White Wings'. It's one of the shorter peonies (80cm) so won't need staking, its petals have a lovely crinkle and it flowers for slightly longer than 'White Wings' so I'm trying it.
Very pale pinks
4 'Sarah Bernhardt' – fully double, late flowering
Sweetly scented, with pale pink flowers, this is favoured by commercial cut-flower producers and is one of the best known. It's very productive and reliable and has good disease resistance. Only down side is that it's tall (1m), so will need staking.
Mid pinks
5 'Bowl Of Beauty' Japanese type, mid to late flowering
One of the most famous of herbaceous peonies and deservedly so as it flowers for almost twice as long as others, with many budded stems and flowers opening one after another for more than a month. It also has delicious scent. A height of 90cm so may need staking.
6 'Monsieur Jules Elie' fully double, late flowering
The centre of each flower mounds up and the petals elegantly pale to silver at their edge. The blooms are borne on long, arching stems (but at 80cm should not need staking) and are deliciously rose scented. Claire Austin particularly loves this one and it's late, so excellent for extending your peony season.
Deep pinks into reds
7 'Karl Rosenfeld' semi-double, mid to late season flowering
This flowers like blazes, with tall, dark-coloured strong stems which should be self supporting. The down side of reds is that they do not make such good cut flowers. Their vase life is shorter than the pinks and whites, particularly the fully doubles, and if picked in bud they won't fully develop. However, 'Inspecteur Lavergne' is reckoned to be an improved variety.
8 'Buckeye Belle' semi-double, very early flowering
This is the deep blood-red peony that filled the one section of planting in Luciano Giubbilei's show garden for Laurent-Perrier at this year's Chelsea Flower Show. It is an excellent garden variety which grows to nearly a metre, but should not need staking.
Where to buy
  • Claire Austin Hardy Plants, Edgebolton, Shawbury, Shropshire SY4 4EL (01939 251173)
  • Kelways Plants Ltd, Picts Hill, Langport, Somerset TA10 9EZ (mail order 01458 250521)

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