Friday, August 31, 2012

Peonies without Stakes

Maggie Easton

During the month of June, common peonies (Paeonia lactiflora) bloom in many Edmonton gardens. Their gorgeous flowers were initially bred for the cut-flower trade in the early 1900’s and grown in greenhouses. I’m told that if, when the bud is first starting to show colour, it is picked, wrapped in plastic and refrigerated, it will keep for weeks. I haven’t tried it, but I suspect it is true. This would have been a valuable trait in the days before air freight made it possible to get cut flowers to any part of the world almost overnight.
Unfortunately, the common peony is not the greatest garden performer, in my opinion. Although hardy, low-care and long-lived, the blossoms of these plants have a tendency to flop over after the inevitable rain storm has swept through. No matter how gracefully they bow down to ‘kiss the ground’ at the first sign of rain or wind, they still end up lying in the mud. I have never succeeded in staking them so that they stay upright without looking as if they are in prison. I think I will treat them as cut flowers this year, and bring them in when they start to show colour.
If, like me, you have no luck staking these stunning flowers but still want to grow peonies, consider growing some species peonies, Japanese peonies, or some of the smaller rock garden peonies. None of these need staking and all are equally beautiful additions to the perennial garden.
I had three different species peonies blooming in my garden this spring. The first one, Paeonia anomala, usually blooms just before the May long weekend. Of course, this year it was the end of May. This peony gets single, deep rose-pink, 4 in. flowers. They have a boss of yellow stamens and interesting seedpods in the fall. The foliage grows 2 to 2 ½ ft. tall and the flowers are carried just above the foliage. P. anomala does not need staking, even in the wind tunnel where I planted it.
Fernleaf peony
  P. tenufolia
(Photos: Maggie Easton)
P. trirernata
   P. triternata

     P. Anomala  
         P. anomala

Another species, P. tenuifolia (Fernleaf peony) bloomed at the same time. This charmer grows only about 1 to 1½ ft. tall. When it is emerging in the spring, it looks like something from outer space. The stems are red, crowned with a ruff of feathery foliage, with a spherical flower bud in the centre. It is fascinating to watch this one grow and mature. The flowers are deep red, single (there are double Fernleaf peonies as well) and they top strong stems adorned with extremely fine-cut foliage of a medium green. P. tenuifolia is slow to get established, but once it gets going it rewards your patience with more and more gorgeous flowers each spring. This peony never needs staking.
The third species peony that bloomed in my garden this spring is P. triternata. Again, the flowers are single, with yellow stamens. However, the flowers have deeper pink markings that appear to be hand painted. Each flower is slightly different, but all are beautiful. The foliage is quite different from other peonies. In colour it is more glaucous and more solid than other peonies. The foliage is somewhat wavy. Mine is still a young plant, blooming for the first time this spring, so it is hard to say how tall it will get. Again, this peony does not need staking. The seedpods add fall interest, although I won’t let it set seed this year since I would like the plant to put its energy into growing more flowers for next year. P. triternata blooms just as the Fernleaf peony is finished.
There are many different peony species, and they come in shades of pink, red and yellow. White ones are also available. In addition to not needing to be staked, many species peonies generally tolerate more shade than the common garden peony; good news if you have a very shady garden. In fact, many species are good woodland plants. Of the three I have discussed, only P. tenuifolia needs full sun. As I mentioned, species peonies also have attractive seed pods which extend their season of interest.
I have a ‘rock garden’ peony that I got from Gardenimport. It is called Thumbellina, and grows only about 1½ feet tall. The flowers are pink and single with yellow stamens. It is very floriferous, and stands up to wind and rain. It started blooming when P. triternata is finished. Gardenimport has several different ‘rock garden’ peonies in their catalogue, in various shades of pink or red. These all have a large dose of P. tenuifolia in their DNA.
Japanese peonies have single flowers that are larger than the species peonies. They bloom later in the peony season and come in colours ranging from white through pink to red. They have a large boss of stamens and look wonderful. Because they have single flowers, they are able to withstand wind and rain, and do not need staking.
By choosing the right peonies, it is possible to enjoy peony blossoms for several weeks. In addition, careful selection will ensure freedom from staking and the envy of other gardeners.

Taken from Edmonton Horticultural Society
(Originally published in Gardener's Gate, August 2009) 

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