UT Gardens May Plant of the Month: Garden Peony

UT Gardens May Plant of the Month: Garden Peony

Posted: Monday, May 2, 2011 8:01 pm

Submitted by Beth Willis, Trials Coordinator, University of Tennessee Gardens

The garden peony is an excellent perennial addition to your landscape. Its boldly textured foliage is paired with striking, often fragrant, blooms that can be any color except blue. Peonies (Paeonia hybrids), native to Asia, have been cultivated for many years for their ornamental displays and are often classified by the type of bloom they exhibit. Flower types range from the fairly simple to increasingly complex: Single, Japanese, Anemone, Semi-Double, Double, and Bomb-Double forms.

Each peony variety blooms for a week or two in the spring, but it is easy to extend the bloom time in your landscape by including varieties that bloom earlier or later in the season. Peonies can be propagated by division, just be sure to get 3-5 buds in each piece. Depending on the size of the start, your new peony may take several years to get established before it begins to bloom. Although new peonies are started from seed, you should deadhead your peony to prevent seed development. This allows more energy to go back into the root system, ensuring vigorous growth next year.

Site selection can be critical for peonies, but once established in the right spot they can bloom for years with very little care. They do require full sun for best flowering. They have a fleshy root system that does best in fertile, well-drained soils and can be prone to root rot in a heavy, poorly drained site. A location that offers wind protection can be helpful. Staking may be required for best display as the blooms can be very heavy and are prone to lodging (flopping over) or stem breakage, especially after it rains. Look for varieties that carry the blooms close to the foliage or that are a simpler form to minimize this problem.

The tree peony (Paeonia suffruticosa) is very similar, but it has woody stems that persist in the landscape. It is propagated by grafting. An Itoh, or intersectional hybrid, developed by Toichi Itoh of Japan, is a cross between a garden peony and tree peony. Its foliage is similar to that of the tree peony, but its stems die back each year.

While traditional peonies are beautiful spring flowering perennials, their short blooming season and heavy blossoms have made some gardeners wary. An Itoh hybrid offers good height and strong stems, plus numerous blooms in an array of colors. A cross between the big-flowered tree peony and the daintier herbaceous kinds, these hybrids offer the best of both worlds. But the really impressive characteristic of these hybrids is that they develop more than one bud per stem. This means you get at least a month of bloom as one flower opens after another. Each mature peony can produce 30 to 50 blossoms over a single season!

Beth Willis is the trials coordinator for the UT Gardens, Knoxville. The University of Tennessee Gardens located in Knoxville and Jackson are part of the UT Institute of Agriculture. Their mission is to foster appreciation, education and stewardship of plants through garden displays, collections, educational programs and research trials. The gardens are open during all seasons and free to the public. See http://utgardens.tennessee.edu/ and http://westtennessee.tennessee.edu/ornamentals/ for more information.

Posted 5.2.11

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