There’s a reason bride’s love to have peonies in their bouquets and at wedding celebrations.
Next to roses, peonies are one of the most romantic flowers, unashamedly soft and delicate and extraordinarily pretty.
Pink and white peonies with their dense explosion of petals are without doubt a sensational sight in a vase or bouquet.
Now, the question is which kinds should you grow in your garden for the most impact.
The most negative thing anyone is going to say to you about peonies is that they don’t last very long - three or four weeks at most.
How to pick the right peonies
The secret, of course, is not to plant one variety but to pick a careful selection of kinds that give you an elegant sequence of blooms from early spring and continues for eight weeks into early summer.
The common garden peony is Paeonia lactiflora. It is the parent of most of the spectacular hybrids we have come to know and love in shades of pink, red, white and yellow.
For a long sequence of blooms, start by choosing a few from the early-blooming group that burst into bloom in early April.
Outstanding varieties include Red Charm, Paula Fay (pink with gold centre), America (rich red), Coral ’n’ Gold (bowl-shaped with yellow stamen). Other very popular varieties include Bess Bockstoce, Coral Sunset, Early Glow and Eliza Lundy.
Next pick some Japanese or anemone-type peonies, ones that form a dense tuft of petals at the centre surrounded by a collar of soft petals.
The most famous in this category is undoubtedly Bowl of Beauty with its delicate fuchsia petals on the outside and pale lemon-yellow centre.
Others top cultivars to consider include Leto (white), Gay Paree (pink and white), Glowing Candles, a pale pink with yellow centre, Brides Dream (white), and Largo (golden centre surrounded by rose petals).
Other popular varieties to look for are Charles Burgess, Butter Bowl, Plainsman and Garden Lace.
“Double peonies” are the last to bloom, starting in mid-May and continuing into June. They have tightly packed blooms. Some think they resemble chrysanthemums and even called them “chrysanthemum peonies”.
Possibly the most loved is one called Sarah Bernhardt with its soft apple-blossom pink petals but many people are also smitten by the rich deep red of Karl Rosenfeld.
I once stepped into a garden and immediately fell in love with Mother’s Choice, a knockout white, but I also think Mons Jules Elie is exquisite.
Other names to look for are Felix Supreme, Hermione, Angel Cheeks, Dayton, Dinner Plate and Hargrove Hudson.
Some years ago, a Japanese hybridizer did a marvellous thing and succeeded at crossing the common garden peony with the more exotic tree group called tree peonies.
The result is a stunning assortment of hybrids known as Itoh peonies.
They are about 40 of them around now and always in big demand. Top names include Bartzella, Scarlet Heaven, Raggedy Ann, Kopper Kettle and Haleigh’s Hallelujah.
Tree peonies are also popular but have a woody stem and are less compact than garden peonies. They are mostly cultivars of Peony suffruticosa and produce large flowers, some that can be 25-cm (10 inches) across.
The ones we get here in North America are mostly Japanese hybrids that range in colour from red, burgundy and yellow to white and pink.
Popular are Houki, Koukamon, Renkaku and Shimadaijin. Name are often translated into English giving them exotic titles like Honeydew from Heaven or Mist Grasping a Pearl.
There are dozens of others but availability is often a challenge.
Where to see peonies
The University of BC Botanical Garden has a good collection having imported 40 varieties from Nanjing some years ago.
The Seattle Chinese Garden also has an excellent collections, including many unique Chinese peonies imported from Louyang.
In B.C., the 3rd annual Castlegar Peony Show is planned for June 9-11 and is a good place to see a wide variety. For more information contact Holly Pender-Love or go to www.castlegarpeony.com
To buy peonies, you will find an excellent selection at top garden centres such as Hunters Garden Centre in Surrey or by mail-order from Ferncliff Gardens in Mission.
Tips on growing peonies
- Take time to think where you are planting. Once your peonyis in the ground, it won’t like being disturbed.
- Peonies do best in fertile, well-drained soil in full sun, a spot where they can get a little afternoon shade.
- Peony rings are available to help support the emerging stems.
- Ants can often be found running all over the plant, especially over unopened buds. Some experts believe this stimulates the buds to open more rapidly. The ants are not thought to do harm or good.
- Don’t plant too deeply. Peonies hate it when they are in a deep hole - one of the main causes of weak flowering.
- Consider growing roses with your peonies, particularly floribundas and shrub roses. They make a perfect combo and can create a natural sequence of flower colour from spring through summer.
- A sign that your peonies are alive and well is when tiny red shoots quickly appear in spring .
World’s peony capital
In 2015, I visited the world’s peony capital.
Louyang in China and saw thousands on display at the Shenzhou peony garden. The garden covers 40 hectares and is home to more than 800,000 tree peonies, including at least seven kinds of wild peony species and more than 500 hybrids.
When I was there, I met with Fu Zhenglin, managing director of the garden complex, and his staff.
Local TV and print media came out to see the meeting and interviewed me about peonies and why Canadians love them so much.I said I thought peonies could be used to foster better relations through our common love of flowers.