Perfect peonies
Amateur Gardening|October 30, 2021
There are three basic types of peony and each has a great deal to offer in terms of gorgeous fragrant blooms, says Anne Swithinbank, as she reveals her top picks
Anne Swithinbank

AS spring changes to summer, herbaceous peonies hold us spellbound with their sumptuous, usually fragrant blooms, held on mature, well-grown plants. The showy doubles are like big frothy desserts, with names to match like ‘Peaches and Cream’, ‘Raspberry Sundae’ and ‘Pink Parfait’. Singles and semi-doubles are great for pollinating insects and top-notch as cut blooms.

It’s not all about flowers, either, as glowing pinkish-red new growth complements spring bulbs, and peony buds are bewitching, especially when they split to reveal the colors inside. Flowers demand to be visited daily, as their shapes and shades change with maturity, and after flowering many peonies produce structural seed pods and a blush of red leaf tints in autumn.

Three basic types

Garden peonies divide into three basic types. Tree peonies are deciduous, maintain a woody structure above ground, and are spring flowering with an awesome color range. Herbaceous peonies (most cultivars of Paeonia lactiflora) die back in autumn, to a crown just below ground level and grow again every spring. A relatively new group, called Intersectional or Itoh peonies (after Toichi Itoh, who launched their breeding in 1948), are a cross between tree and herbaceous peonies.

Compact and floriferous

Itoh peonies have the leaf shape, flower size and color range of tree peonies, but die back in winter like herbaceous ones. Compact and floriferous, they rarely need staking and bloom for a long time. All three groups are hardy, long-lived, and generally untroubled by slugs, snails, rabbits and deer.

Refusing to bloom

Herbaceous peonies sometimes infuriate their owners by refusing to bloom. This could be blamed on too much shade, poor soil or competition from other thirsty plants in spring. More often than not, the crowns have been buried too deeply. Now, when peonies are dying back for winter, is a good time to move any that are badly placed and underperforming, perhaps dividing crowns in the process.

Dig deeply, as they have long fleshy roots and don’t panic if a few break. Plants will settle quickly in well-conditioned soil and though they might miss a year, they will soon be back in bloom. Autumn is also a great time for adding more peonies to the garden.

9 gorgeous peonies

3 old favorites

Paeonia lactiflora ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ AGM

Bred by Lemoine in 1906, this popular peony bears strong upright stems of large double rose-pink flowers sweetly perfumed and good for cutting. The plants bloom into June, but may need support. H&S: 3ft (1m).

Paeonia lactiflora ‘Festiva Maxima’ AGM

This old peony, bred in 1851, is a personal favorite, with its rounded buds streaked with pink, opening to fragrant double white blooms with the odd crimson fleck. Sturdy and should not need staking. H&S: 3ft (1m).

Paeonia officinalis ‘Rubra Plena’ AGM

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