PAEONIA: THE PEONY
Herbaceous and Shrubby Plants of Rare Beauty
Paeonia. Popular hardy perennial plants of great beauty, the Peonies are in full bloom in May and June. The herbaceous Peonies are the chief favorites. The Tree Peonies are magnificent, but less well known. The former are natives chiefly of Europe and Asia Minor, the latter of China and Japan. The name Paeonia is said to commemorate the physician of the Greek gods, Paeon. Paeonia belongs to the Buttercup family, Ranunculaceae.
Comparatively few species or wild types of Peony are grown, but innumerable varieties, having single or double flowers in a wide range of coloring, have been raised, and additions to the number are made annually. Many of the very finest are the result of the work of American breeders. The chief species or wild types from which the May-flowering varieties have been raised by crossbreeding and selection are Paeonia officinalis, the old crimson Peony of southern Europe, and P. albiflora, a Siberian plant which bears white and blush-colored fragrant blooms, and whose offspring are the Juneflowering Chinese Peonies.
Soil and Location for Herbaceous Peonies. Herbaceous Peonies thrive in sun or part shade, but they must be planted in deep, rich soil. In poor ground which dries out quickly in summer, they do not flourish; there they grow weakly and flower sparsely. Peonies take some time to become established, and it is necessary to plant them where they can remain undisturbed for years. The sites should be prepared by digging 12-20 in. deep and mixing compost or welldecayed manure in the lower soil. If the ground is light, some heavier loam or clay should be added.
It is a mistake to plant Peonies in a border facing east, for in that position the flower buds are liable to be damaged by the early morning sun, if it happens to shine on them after a frosty night. If, however, the Peonies are in a border facing south, southwest or west, they are unlikely to suffer harm in such circumstances.
How to Succeed with Peonies. As established Peonies are vigorous, leafy plants and take up a good deal of room, it is not wise to use them too prominently in the mixed flower border, where they occupy a disproportionate amount of space after they are through blooming. They may be planted in open spaces among shrubs, in similar places on the edge of woodland, or in other informal parts of the garden where they have room to develop and are not likely to be disturbed. They must not, however, be set in deep shade or in places where the soil becomes impoverished by the roots of neighboring trees or shrubs.
During hot, dry weather in summer, Peonies need a copious watering occasionally; they will not flourish if allowed to become dry at the roots. It is beneficial to mulch the soil around them with decayed manure in spring; this helps to keep the roots moist and feeds them also.
Peonies produce larger blooms if they are disbudded. This operation consists of removing all flower buds except the terminal one from each stem. The buds should be picked or pinched out as early as this can be done without danger of
damaging the bud that remains on the stem.
Peonies are quite hardy and require no special winter protection. After frost has killed the foliage it should be cut off slightly below ground level but not deeply enough to injure the buds at the crown (top) of the cluster of roots. Under no circumstances should a mulch of rotted manure, peat moss or other material likely to hold water and exclude air be applied in fall, because it will encourage disease; if a mulch of any kind is used, it should be light and permit the free passage of air through it; salt hay or branches of evergreens laid lightly over the ground are mulches that can be used without ill effect. The best time to plant Peonies is in September; they may, however, be planted in early spring, provided the ground is in a suitable condition. Set the plants at such a depth that the crowns or tops are covered with about 2 in. of soil; they should be spaced 2 1/2-3 ft. from each other. Planting the roots too deep is a common cause of failure.
When suitably located and cared for, Herbaceous Peonies will bloom satisfactorily each year for a long period, often for 20 years or more; it is not wise to transplant them unless quite necessary so long as they continue to flower well.
Propagation of Herbaceous Peonies. Peonies may be propagated from seed. There are two objections to this method, however. One is the long period (4-8 years) which elapses between the sowing of the seeds and the maturing and blooming of the resultant plants. The second is, that unless it is a wild species, the seed gathered from a Peony plant will not exactly reproduce its parent. If seed is gathered from one of the magnificent double white Chinese Peonies, for instance, the seedlings are liable to be a mixture of white and pink single and double forms, none of them identical with the parent. Hence raising Peonies from seed is of interest chiefly to the specialist and breeder.
For the general gardener the best method of multiplication is by division of the roots. If a Peony root is cut into divisions, every piece of root that has a bud attached to it will grow and produce a new plant of the same variety. This is the standard method of propagating Peony plants.
Each division should, preferably, include 3-5 eyes until towards the end of the year, or until the approach of severe weather, and then placed under glass. They can be grown in a greenhouse in which a minimum winter temperature of about 45 degrees is maintained.
Kinds of Peonies. Among the wild types or species of herbaceous Peonies there are several attractive flowering (buds). September is the most favorable time of the year for dividing herbaceous Peonies.
Tree Peonies. The chief of the Tree Peonies, Peonia suffruticosa (Moutan), is a leaf-losing shrub which reaches a height of 3-5 ft., and bears immense single or double flowers in May and June. It thrives in ordinary loamy garden soil which is well drained; light land can be made suitable by adding old turf, and clayey land by adding old turf, leaf mold and sand. It is necessary to choose a position for these shrubs which is sheltered from the east; they are hardy in the sense that they are unlikely to be damaged by severe frost in winter, but as they start into growth early in spring the fresh shoots are liable to be spoiled by late frosts unless in a sheltered place.
If the shoots become slightly frozen and the sun shines on them early in the morning, they will be injured; if, however, the shrubs are in a position sheltered from the east and open to the south, southwest, or west, the slightly frozen shoots will thaw gradually and no harm will follow.
Tree Peonies are sometimes grown in large flowerpots for the decoration of the conservatory. They should be potted in autumn in loamy (turfy) soil with which some leaf mold and sand have been mixed; they may be left out of doors plants, some of which should be included in every representative collection.
One of the earliest to bloom is Peonia anomala, which bears rose-colored flowers. P. humilis is of comparatively, low growth, about 18 in. high, with blooms of rose coloring. Its double form, fimbriata, is very attractive. P. officinalis, a very old garden plant, bears crimson flowers. Its leaves are also attractive when young; they are of reddish-crimson color at first, but they turn green as they age.
The wild type of Tree Peony, Paeonia suffruticosa, has large white flowers blotched with crimson.
Paeonia lutea is a particularly handsome Tree Peony with grayish leaves and yellow flowers which are much smaller than those of the named varieties of Tree Peony.
Other attractive species are: P. Mlokosewitschi, soft primrose-yellow; P. tenuifolia, with finely cut foliage and crimson flowers, and its double form, plena; P. peregrina, red, and its variety Sunshine, salmon-scarlet; and P. Wittmanniana, with pale yellow flowers. All these are in full beauty in May.
Beautiful Varieties. There are innumerable varieties, both single and double, of both herbaceous and Tree Peonies. These are listed and described in the catalogues of dealers in hardy perennial plants and in the catalogues of Peony specialists. They include a wide choice of colors among which are white, pink, red, yellow and many in-between shades and variegations.