A few weeks ago I wrote about lilacs. Many northern transplants love lilacs and often have difficulty growing them here in eastern North Carolina. Peonies are herbaceous perennials with fantastic aroma. However, they also struggle with our hot summers.
When I was a kid I remember my grandparents had a couple clumps in their front yard. They were awesome. I still remember how nice they smelled. Their plants always seemed to bloom around Memorial Day, when we often visited.
It’s a shame peonies don’t have a long blooming period. They are also expensive so they often aren’t used much in landscaping. Peonies sure have longevity though. It’s not uncommon for established clumps to be over a hundred years old.
When I was in Maine last summer I remember reading a local newspaper article about some century old peonies being stolen from the Presque Isle Historical Society. Somebody just dug them up and hauled them off. I don’t know what kind of person steals flowers, but they were valued at over $1000.
Peonies come in a range of colors, though combinations of white and pink are most common. Plant height of different varieties can vary substantially. Flowers are usually large and come with different types of blooms.
Singles have the fewest petals with a large center containing the male and female parts. Japanese and anemone types have many of the male parts transformed into petal-like structures. Semi-double and double peonies have multiple rows of petals and bomb-double types have long blooms which don’t produce any pollen.
These aromatic beauties are most adapted to sunny locations with well-drained soil. Unfortunately, in eastern North Carolina we are at the southern range of their adaptability. Peonies, like lilacs, are better adapted to northern locations. They even tolerate winter temperatures as cold as -50F.
Southern growers must cheat on the sunlight a little and try to avoid the afternoon heat as much as possible by providing peony plants a little shade. The problem is that if we reduce the light too much they won’t flower. They also may develop weak stems and fall over.
Most peonies should have some type of support. Large flowered cultivars are especially susceptible to wind damage. I find that tomato cages work well. Foliage generally covers the wire and the cages protect against our strong winds.
Generally, peony plants are pretty low maintenance. They rarely need to be divided. In fact, constantly splitting them up will lead to their downfall. That’s probably one reason peonies are so expensive. Newly divided plants likely won’t bloom for at least two years, so once plants are established they should be left alone.
It seems everyone wants plants that bloom constantly. That won’t happen with peonies. Their blooming season is short, so peony enthusiasts often grow several varieties. People who love irises and daylilies often did the same thing before continuous blooming cultivars became available. Many folks still do.
Maybe one of these days someone might develop a re-blooming peony cultivar. I’d love to enjoy that peony fragrance throughout the entire growing season.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (firstname.lastname@example.org).