Written by Helen Glenn Court
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Cultivated for their blooms in the Far East for at least 1,500 years, and possibly for as many as 4,000, peonies are a delightful addition to any home garden. In Japan, the flower is a symbol of prosperity. In China, the word means "most beautiful." Classical Greek mythology has it that the physician Paeon chose sides in a squabble amongst the gods on Mount Olympus and was turned into the peony for having bothered.

The colorful stories scarcely stop there. But certainly by 77 AD they settled down into the more practical. Pliny wrote the first detailed horticultural description of the flower, which was cited as a cure for some 20 ailments. Charlemagne described it as "the friend of physicians and the praise of cooks." English records dating to 1157 document proper cultivation, and Shakespeare references the flower in The Taming of the Shrew in 1603.

Peonies in the Garden

Long-lived perennials that produce large blooms in the spring, there are two basic types of peonies--garden (Paeonia valbiflora or Paeonia officinalis) and tree (Paeonia suffruticosa). The garden peony grows to between 20 and 36 inches and will flower in a single, semidouble, double, Japanese, or anemone bloom. Tree peonies produce a great many flowers on a shrub-like plant. Peonies do best in cool climates and full sun. A number of cultivars have been developed, however, that fare well enough in the southern states.

Low maintenance plants, peonies are best planted in the fall before the ground has frozen for the first time. Soil should be well drained, with a pH of between 6.0 and 7.0, and tempered with either compost or well-rotted animal manure. Holes for seeds or plants should be spaced three to four feet apart, and placed in holes deep enough to separate plants from the manure or compost, but not too deeply or the plant will likely fail. Spring fertilizing should come only after plants are two to three inches high or have bloomed.

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