Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Patience, Perseverance and Itoh Peonies

By Blaine Marchand

Julia Rose
"Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet." ~ Aristotle

How applicable is this maxim to the creation of the Itoh peonies, also known as intersectionals,

crosses between a tree peony and an herbaceous one.  Hybridizing of peonies has a long illustrious history, but the genesis for the introduction of intersectional peonies has its origins in the early 1900's with initial hybridization experiments of breeders Victor Lemoine and Louis Henry and later Professor A.P. Saunders (whose family connection to the Central Experimental Farm is well known and whose hybrid peonies have a formidable presence in the Farm's collection).

'The strongest of all warriors are those two ~ Time and Patience."  Leo Tolstoy (War and Peace)

It was in 1948 that Toichi Itoh, a Japanese hybridizer- and a most patient person indeed - hit gold.  Rumours persist he attempted over 2,000 crosses before succeeding with a cross between the lactiflora peony, 'Kakoden', and the tree peony 'Alice Harding'.  The result was seven seedlings that had the tree peony as their dominant characteristic.  Unfortunately,  Dr. Itoh did not live to see his seedlings bloom.
Sequestered Sunshine
These intersectional hybrids, that bear his name Itoh, have lush magnificent paper-like blooms, reminiscent of these of the tree peony, but the abundant foliage of an herbaceous peony.  They do not require staking and rain does not weigh down the blooms.  Itohs, like herbaceous peonies, need to be cut down each autumn and as buds are set below ground, they are winter hardy, a bonus for Ottawa's climate.  The intersectional peonies come in a range of magnificent colours - yellow, pink, maroon, fuchsia and multicoloured.  When in bloom, the Itoh peonies in the Farms' Ornamental Gardens consistently stop people in their tracks.

Introduction to North America

In the 1970s, an American breeder, Louis Smirnow, negotiated with Dr. Itoh's widow to introduce four of her husband's peonies into North America.  These he had named: 'Yellow Crown', 'Yellow Dream', 'Yellow Emperor' and 'Yellow Heaven'.  Peony aficionados were smitten.  But these peonies, initially scarce, came with a steep price tag.  They were largely sold to peony enthusiasts or obsessive buyers.                                                  
Other hybridizers in the United States - Roger Anderson, Don Hollingsworth, Donald Smith and Irene Tolomeo to name a few - continued the work of Toichi Itoh on intersectional hybridizing.  They created some truly sensational peonies .  In Canada, Serge Fafard, of Les Jardins Osiris, also breeds intersectionals.

Itoh propagation
As Itohs are derived from tree peonies, they produce an expansive root system that makes root division, the usual way to obtain new peony plants, a tough job and all too frequently results in few new plants that then take years to reach maturity and produce blooms.  One alternative, of course, is to graft the intersectional to a nurse root of an herbaceous peony, which like a parent, provides food and strength until the intersectional roots are set and strong enough to take over.

Another option is micro-propagation, which is essentially growing plants from tissue or cell culture under controlled conditions.  The result is Itohs that can be produced quickly and offered to buyers sooner at a more affordable price.

Itohs at the Farm
In 2009, the Canadian branch of Plantek International, which is one of the leading micro-propagation companies, contacted Mary Pratte, advisor to the Friends' peony team, with a very generous donation of 24 plants.  Among these were benchmark Itohs - 'Smith Family Yellow', 'Going Bananas', 'Sequestered Sunshine', 'Singing in the Rain', 'Yankee Doodle Dandy', 'Cora Louise, 'Magical Mystery Tour' and 'Julia Rose'.

"He that can have patience can have what he will."
                                    ~ Benjamin Franklin

Magical Mystery Tour.  A bloom from this Itoh peony was a first place winner at the 2013 Canadian Peony Society (CPS) show
A walk through the peony garden in 2014 will show that the number of Itohs in the Farms impressive collection has grown to 42, with 26 different named varieties.  Among these is Serge Fefard's wonderful 'Osiris Tourbillon'.  But also among them are la creme de la creme - Roger Anderson's 'First Arrival' and 'Julia Rose', Donald Smith's 'Morning Lilac', and Don Hollingsworth's  'Garden Treasure'.  A look at these peonies underlines that patience and peristence do indeed bring sweet rewards.
First Arrival                          Smith Family Yellow

 A happy member of the Friends' peony team since retirement.  Blaine also tends to a collection of over 500 peonies in Osceola, Ontario.  Past president of the Canadian Peony Society and editor of its newsletter, Paeonia Nordica, he is the author of eight books.

Reproduced with permission from Friends of Central Experimental Farm Spring 2014  www.friendsofthefarm.ca

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