Thursday, April 22, 2010

On Growing Peonies in the Atlantic Regions

taken from The Peony - C to C Feb 2001, Vol 4 Issue 1
written by Julia Dicks

    I have not grown peonies in other areas of the Atlantic provinces, only my own small section.  However, I would suspect that it is typical.  The plants perhaps flower a few days later in Newfoundland and northern New Brunswick, and a few days earlier around Yarmouth.  Since flowering time usually varies a bit from one year to another it would be hard to be certain.
    The first peonies ever grown here would be paeonia officinalis rubra.  One autumn day in the late seventies my great uncle stopped in to see me.  He had been making himself a few square feet of flower garden, and in it had flowers that he remembered from his childhood, johnny jump ups and lords and ladies (pink and white mallow).  He wanted to tell me  of his latest triumph - he had gotten "a red piney plant just like Mama's!".  Although I read that these are long lived and enduring plants they don't seem to be particularly so here.  Neither my great uncle's nor my grandmother's plants survived the neglect that fell upon their gardens after their deaths and I have never seen one anyplace like an old garden or cemetery.  They don't seem to be commonly grown here now, although I know of a few, and have a red and a pink myself.  The one in my front garden comes into bloom around the first of June, the one in the back garden in mid June.  On well established plants the flowers last 2-3 weeks. A lovely splash of colour, but a distinctly unrewarding scent!  They are not difficult to grow, but are sprawly plants that go dormant early if in a dry place.
    The next peonies to arrive here would be the lactifloras.  The first ones were undoubtedly French peonies, their descendants still to be seen everywhere, blooming the very last of June and early July.  My uncle tells of going to church on Sunday in the horse and buggy when he was very young.  He always watched for the corner with the hedges of peonies.  They are long since gone, and so is even the house, - nothing but a hayfield there now.  I believe that my grandmother grew every peony she could get, and kept what she regarded as the best of them.  My uncle thinks the first of her peonies came from those hedges, and many of her peonies live in my gardens.  Perhaps my Modest Guerin first lived there, and the one I think is Mons Dupont.  They grow in many gardens here.  The red semi double might have come from there also, they had mainly pinks and whites in the 1920's and 30's, and most of the reds were semi doubles.  There was great excitement in my grandmother's garden in the 1930's when the big fully double red (Felix Crousse) flowered for the first time.
    My grandmother told me that her best white was Festiva Maxima, her best reds were Felix Crousse and Karl Rosenfield.  I did finally identify the one my grandfather called her best pink.  It was Albert Crousse - she was absolutely correct.  You see these everywhere; they seem to do equally well in pampered gardens and on old lawns where the only attention given them is not mowing them off.  They and even older peonies used to be glorious in ancient clumps planted by gravestones, but the present mowing off, of ornamental plants and bushes in cemeteries is not a subject that I have polite opinions on . I  did rescue three of these from my relatives' graves.  My grandmother had put her finest and best beloved peony (Festiva Maxima)on her mother's grave, it now blooms for her daughter, granddaughter, and great granddaughter.
    From what I read peonies bloom later here than in more southerly regions, and they certainly grow taller.  My grandmother's central garden had beds with a spine of peonies planted down the middle of them;  when I first made the biggest bed in my back garden I did the same thing.  Sarah Bernhardt, La France, Albert Crousse, Karl Rosenfield, Festiva Maxima, Gramma's late pink.  (Martha Bulloch?) Georgiana Shaylor and Modest Guerin.  They were lovely, and bloomed well despite partial shade.  Albert and Modest are the tallest, usually about 38-40 inches, sometimes more.  But there was one obvious problem - Georgiana Shaylor.  The fact that for me it takes 5 years to bloom as a full double, and even then does not always do so, is no deterrent.  I prefer it as a semi double.  But no one mentioned then that it was short!  A good 10-12 inches shorter than all the others.
    When I planned the beds in the front garden I did more research.  Into the back row went the taller plants like Albert Crousse, Sarah Bernhardt, Bowl of Beauty.   For the front row I sent for short plants instead of just the old classics.  In went Raspberry Sundae and Top Brass.  This was no improvement.  Sarah was no Sarah, but a short white which never grows higher than 22 inches.  Raspberry Sundae and Top Brass do not grow here to 27 and 28 inches as their description said, but 33-35 inches.  Which is why the only pink oriental poppy that grows well for me is down in behind 2 peonies! Raspberry Sundae never develops the red overlay that was so pretty in the picture, it's just another pale pink , and I do not care for the "honey scent" of Top Brass.  Sometimes I think I should just grow my peonies in rows like carrots! I am so besotted with them that I would think they were perfectly gorgeous just like that.
    Some plants grow tall and leggy and reach badly towards the sun no matter how sunny a spot I put them  in.  I think perhaps they need a hotter climate.  Primavera is like that, and although it flowers freely, the flowers are not impressive.  My grandmother had it, but apparently did not keep it.  Perhaps I shall not either. Solange is less generous with its bloom, but very beautiful.  Our summers seem to be getting hotter and dryer lately.  After the worst one yet the flowers on Solange were the loveliest it had ever produced.  I hear that Madame de Vernville likes a cool climate, I should like to try it.
    The descriptions I read often mention that some flowers fade considerably in the sun.  Officinalis rosea most certainly does to quite a degree, and some others do a bit.  I suspect not as much as in hotter gardens.  I like soft colours, so don't really mind when officinalis rosea and Coral Charm tone down a little.
    The old classics are usually available here, and occasionally something different.  I grow a few hybrids, all from mail order.  Salmon Chiffon has been an unusually lovely plant but so far rather delicate.  It's only 3 years old, it may improve.  The Wittmaniana hybrids Avante Garde and Le Printemps are sturdier, blooming early in June.  There is one tree peony in my garden -  next year will tell if it will thrive or not.  It's nice to have a bit of variety, but the best growers are generally the older lactifloras.  They are the backbone of peony growing here, sturdy and reliable, surviving even disastrous years.
    To my grandmother's best reds I would add Red Charm.  A lovely plant, even though it's lack of side buds shortens it's season.  I grow for garden effect, not competition, so side buds mean my peonies usually last until about 20 July, unless it's an unusually hot year.  I am sure that Festiva Maxima is one of the commonest peonies grown, and with good reason.  Miss America is a wonderful white, as is Kelways Glorious, although probably less vigorous.  The white that I think is Mons Dupont is more widely grown.
    In pinks the choice is exceedingly broad, even in old unnamed plants.  Probably the pink one sees most often here is Edulis Superba, a good plant though no favourite of mine.  Mrs. F. D. Roosevelt  must be just as vigorous, as is Albert Crousse, which to me has the best flowers. But that's another subject!

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