Peonies have a long and illustrious presence in history, art and gardens. They appear in writings by Confucius as early as 500 BC. There are 33 naturally occurring species, mostly herbaceous, but the vast majority of peonies grown in gardens are named hybrids. The two species peonies most commonly grown in gardens are Paeonia officinalis and P mlokosewitschii, which is probably best referred to by its common name “Molly the Witch” (see image below).
They are highly desirable plants for the garden and for cutting. The colour range includes white, cream, yellow and all shades of pink and red. There are many flower forms too, from simple single blooms to semi-double, anemone flowered and even a type known as bomb flowered. They have striking, jagged foliage which makes a distinctive and strong contribution in the border, and many have good autumn colour as they recede. There are three forms of peony: herbaceous peonies, tree peonies and intersectional peonies.
Intersectional peonies are also known as Itoh peonies. They are the progeny of a cross between herbaceous and tree peonies made in the 1940s by a Japanese gentleman called Toichi Itoh. Sadly, he died before he saw them bloom. They have the best qualities both parents, with exquisite blooms in sumptuous colours. They make healthy looking plants up to one metre high with short woody stems. They flower more freely than their parents and over a slightly longer period. Though they are sterile, they still produce empty seed pods.
Peonies grow best in rich, well-drained soil in sun. They can tolerate a little shade, but flower best in full sun, and when not crowded by other plants. The heavier blooms may need support, especially here in Cornwall where they can easily break with the weight of rain held in the flower. They are deep-rooted and resent disturbance. They are not particularly happy in pots and perform better in the ground. Ants are sometimes seen running over the buds, but this is not a cause for concern.
Peonies have a short flowering season, from late May into June. Because they are so much in demand as cut flowers the market is supplied by imported stems. Improbably, Alaska has now joined the list of countries producing peonies for the cut flower trade. The long hours of summer sunlight and relatively cool temperatures enables Alaska to produce a late summer crop.
For flower arranging, peonies are best cut when the bud is still a tight ball but showing colour and allowed to open in the vase. They are very thirsty plants so the vase will need to be checked and topped up regularly. If the blooms are looking tired, or picked already open, you can revive them by completely submerging the whole stem in deep cold water overnight. The petals can absorb water.