Peonies are flowering plants found in many parts of the world, including the western part of North America, Asia, and Europe. These flowers generally grow in abundance, providing a deep, fragrant aroma as well as a wide range of aesthetics. Their variety makes them a popular symbolic representation on state flags and tattoos. While peonies do grow in the wild, cultivating a particular strand of peony is the best way to have beautiful flowering plants around your home.
Types of Peonies
Peonies have many subspecies. The main categories are herbaceous peonies, tree peonies, and intersectional peonies. Herbaceous peonies grow into relatively small, bushy plants with large, wide blooms that open in June. They usually go dormant toward the end of summer and return the following spring. Tree peonies bloom earlier than their herbaceous cousins, between early April and May. They are also considerably larger, growing over a yard in height, and thrive well past the summer. Intersectional peonies are a cross between the herbaceous and tree varieties, offering striking, bright blooms that last beyond the standard growing season.
Choosing the Best Varietal
The first choice you should make is the style of peony you wish to cultivate. Make your decision based on your color and flowering preferences. For example, there are four petal varieties: single bloom, semi-double bloom, double bloom, and anemone-form. Peonies also come in many colors, ranging from pink and purple to deep burgundy and apricot. The color and “bowl” of the flower can be determined through rudimentary online research or speaking with a florist at a local garden store. With a bit of exploration, you can mix and match complementary colors and styles for a striking arrangement.
Buying Your Peonies
Ideally, purchase your peonies at a specialist plant nursery. Not all major home stores carry bulbs or potted varieties, so you may need to do a bit of research to find the nearest nursery. Ensure that you are buying in the right season, which varies depending on the type of peonies you choose. If you are buying potted peonies, the best time to plant will be in late spring, when they will be exposed to generous sunlight and rainfall heading into summer. If you buy the bare-rooted bulbous peonies, you must plant these in late autumn, so that they may rest and develop underground before blooming the next spring and summer.
Preparing Your Flower Beds
Determine the type of soil in your flower beds. Peonies are hardy plants that will thrive in a variety of climates and mediums, but the best soil is that which is cultivated (turned over), and properly fertilized with mulch or biodegradable kitchen waste. Mature peonies are large plants, so they need a lot of space. Plant the bulbs three to four feet apart to ensure they get enough sunlight and the room they need to expand comfortably.
Putting the Bulbs in the Ground
Make a hole in the soil no deeper than the length of the peony bulb. Clear an area wide enough to ensure that the entire root system will fit with ease. Place the bulb in the hole and cover the whole thing, ensuring it is level with the surface of the soil. Use your hands — tools could inadvertently damage the bulb. Stamp gently around the planted peony with your hands or boot to secure the plant in place. This will keep it steady and protected from wind or storms. Water the bulbs generously right away, and make sure they get enough water during dry periods.
While peonies are naturally strong and nimble, some issues will prevent them from flourishing. The most common mistake first-time peony planters make is not planting their bulbs in direct sunlight. Peonies love water and sun and need plenty of both to mature and bloom well. Drought conditions are also harmful to peonies. During these periods, make sure to water generously and add kitchen waste or other mulch to preserve the dampness around the root structure.
Tips for Harvesting
Peonies are perennial plants, meaning they bloom each year and need not be replanted each spring or autumn. However, younger plants need time to properly mature. Try not to cut the blooms the first year after planting, if you can resist the urge. The resulting blooms the following year will be more dynamic, bright, and lush. When trimming flowers from more mature peony plants, cut further down, leaving a long stem on a very tight bulb, early in the morning. Immediately place the stem in a vase with cool water and keep it out of direct sunlight. Change the water frequently and remove any plant debris.
Peonies are survivors and can reproduce in two ways. They can subdivide their root structure to produce offspring plants that will grow, mature, and bloom nearby. They also spread seeds eaten by small animals and birds, which are then spread more widely. Peonies can also be grafted, either from direct cuts above ground or, more commonly, from root splicing. This is often practiced in specialist plant nurseries. The resulting plants are more commercially efficient than other forms of reproduction, and thus favored in the business.
Peonies in China
Peonies have been cultivated for many centuries, most notably in dynastic China. During the sixth and seventh centuries, some varieties were used as natural medicine. Many Chinese regions still revere the peony, holding harvest festivals in sites adorned with the blooms to celebrate the arrival of spring and the bounty of reaping. In He Ze (historically a province under the Qing Dynasty), there is both a harvest festival and a research center dedicated to investigations of the peony.
While peonies are most often enjoyed as decoration or symbolic representations, they also have a long medicinal history. China uses peonies or their manufactured components in natural medicine, as do Korea and Japan. In China, peonies are also consumed. The petals of the Paeonia lactiflora are lightly boiled and added to sweetened tea. During the middle ages, peony-infused water was a common and popular beverage for the elite classes.