Heirloom Bulbs & Garden History • Living Treasures from the Past
Read More: Peonies
For Better Peonies, Cut and Destroy Foliage Now
Peonies are rarely troubled by pests or diseases, but here’s an easy, poison-free way to make sure yours stay that way. We do it every fall.
1. Don’t wait. Cut them down early enough that the leaves are still green. If you wait until they’re dry and brittle, they’ll be much harder to clean up – and disease organisms can over-winter on any scrap that’s left behind.
2. Start with hedge-clippers so you can cut a lot of stems at once. Chop them off a few inches above the ground, and pile the foliage to the side.
3. Follow up with pruning shears to cut off the remaining bits of stem as close to the ground as possible – being careful not to injure the pink buds of next year’s stems which are at or near the soil surface.
4. Bag all leaves and stems and throw them in the trash. DO NOT COMPOST. Your goal is to leave virtually nothing behind that disease organisms can over-winter in.
5. Sterilize your tools by dipping or rubbing them with bleach or alcohol before going on to the next peony.
That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? And remember, healthy peonies bloom more!
Learning from You: Are Peonies Really Rabbit-Proof?
Until a few years ago I don’t think I’d ever seen a rabbit in my garden here in the center of Ann Arbor, but now they’re everywhere. They devoured my glory-of-the-snow this spring, and my neighbor says they’re why so few of our self-sowing larkspur bloomed this summer.
Peonies, however, are not one of their favorites, according to UK nurserywoman Claire Austin who’s been growing a huge collection of them ever since her father, the famed rose breeder David Austin, gave them up for roses in the 1980s.
“Did you know that peonies are rabbit-proof?” she writes in the May 2018 issue of Country Living. “If you have rabbits that like nothing better than to nibble from your borders, get planting peonies! Rabbits do not like the taste . . . and won't be tempted to snack on their roots, stems or blooms.”
But Claire gardens in Wales, and we’re wondering if what she says is also true for American rabbits. A few stalks of my peonies were chewed on for the first time this year, and I blamed the rabbits. It was minor damage, but I’m still wondering – do the rabbits in your garden leave your peonies alone?
As the buds on our peonies here in Ann Arbor swell with promise, I’ve been thinking about the great French artist Edouard Manet, whose ground-breaking works helped to launch Impressionism and changed art as we know it forever.
In 1864-65, just after he exhibited his best-known work, the scandalous Luncheon on the Grass, Manet made several paintings of peonies, including Peonies in a Vase on a Stand, pictured here. According to a 1983 exhibition catalog published by the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais in Paris, these works “painted at the peak of his artistic vitality are allegories of vanity . . . [and] the transience of beauty,” as were many of the magnificent Dutch flower paintings of the 1600s.
“Van Gogh was much struck by this painting,” the catalog continues, “and mentions it at a time when he was himself working on a flower series: ‘Do you remember that one day we saw a very extraordinary Manet at the Hôtel Drouot, some huge pink peonies with their green leaves against a light background? As free in the open air and as much a flower as anything could be, and yet painted in a perfectly solid impasto.’”
Unfortunately, although Van Gogh described the peonies as pink, they look white today because the pigments Manet used have deteriorated over time – a problem which has also afflicted several of Van Gogh’s works including Vase with Pink Roses, now at the National Gallery in Washington, DC.
At the time Manet painted this image, peonies were held “in high esteem, recently introduced into Europe and still considered an item of luxury,” which would have made the painting especially appealing to Manet’s “elegant clientele.” More importantly, though, “Manet simply liked peonies. He grew them in his garden at Gennevilliers, and their exuberance . . . was in perfect harmony with his generous and sensuous brushwork.”
Gardening at the Sink with Peony-Scented Dish Soap
Have you ever been excited about dish soap? As head dish-washer at our house, that’s exactly how I felt when I saw peony-scented dish soap at the supermarket recently.
With a vintage vibe and environmentally-friendly ingredients, Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day household products have a gained a national following. The company’s founder named the company for her mother, saying she was inspired to make cleaning products that “smell nice, like my mom’s garden.”
Scents include basil, lavender, and honeysuckle, along with more unusual “limited edition” fragrances such as rhubarb, sunflower, and – the one I plan to try next – radish.
So does the peony-scented soap really smell like peonies? Not to my nose, but it does smell wonderfully flowery and fresh, and I like it a lot. See their full line-up – from air freshener to hand lotion – and find a source near you at MrsMeyers.com.
It’s definitely “a stunner,” as co-author David Michener of the University of Michigan Peony Garden told me, with page after page of glorious photos, many by co-author Carol Adelman of Oregon’s Adelman Peony Gardens. After chapters on peony history and origins, peony types, gardening with peonies, and peonies as cut flowers, most of the book is devoted to mouth-watering close-ups and short descriptions of nearly 200 peonies.
Although I wish there were more heirlooms in it, David and Carol have put together a line-up that’s impressively diverse. Most are herbaceous peonies, but there are plenty of intersectional and tree peonies, too, all dating from 1824 to 2015, and the incredible range of colors and forms is sure to have you ooo-ing and ahhh-ing. The book’s price is impressive, too – just $19 at Amazon. So what are you waiting for?
You don’t have to be a fan of the Little House on the Prairie books or TV series to enjoy it. The illustrations – antique images, original artwork from the books, and historic and modern photos – drew me in immediately, and Marta’s writing reads more like a conversation with a friend than a dissertation. The Wilders homesteaded in a half dozen states, from New York to South Dakota, and their story is more about growing food than flowers, as well as the untamed natural world they lived in.
At the end are chapters on “Visiting Wilder Gardens” and “Growing a Wilder Garden” today, and then just before the index there’s my favorite photo: a snapshot from 1962 of Marta’s family standing in her great-aunt’s backyard – “the flower garden that I imprinted on” – next to a big beautiful swath of tiger lilies.
Garden Insects of North America, second edition – I got a copy of this book for my birthday recently, and it’s even better than I expected. First of all it’s BIG: 704 pages, weighing a hefty five pounds. It’s so well bound, though, that it opens flat for easy reading, and the cover seems so durable that I won’t hesitate to take it with me into the garden.
Then there are the photos: 3300 of them, all in full color, and helpfully organized into chapters such as “Insects That Chew on Leaves and Needles.” I admit my first reaction to them was “gross!” Most bugs, after all, aren’t as photogenic as the caterpillar on the cover, and it’s daunting to see page after page of damaged plants. But before long I was discovering insects I’d seen before but didn’t know what they were – such as the tiny, mosaic-patterned ailanthus webworm moth – and I realized this book is going to be both useful and fun.
Superstar garden blogger Margaret Roach recently called it “a must for every gardening household,” and I couldn’t agree more. One caution, though: be sure to get the brand-new second edition which is bigger and better than the 2004 original.
Protect Peonies and Iris with an Easy Fall Clean-Up
For healthier plants and more flowers, give your peonies and iris a simple fall clean-up.
PEONIES – Although peonies are generally care-free, they can be afflicted by powdery mildew (pictured here) and other fungal diseases.
To prevent spores from overwintering, cut peony stems as close to the ground as possible, carefully bagging everything as you go, and dispose in the trash instead of composting. For best results, do this earlier rather than later, before the leaves dry up.
IRIS – Fall is also the best time to control iris borers. Borers hatch in spring from eggs laid in fall on iris leaves and anything similar that’s close by. To destroy them, simply wait until after a hard frost kills the adult moths and then (a) cut back all leaves to a couple of inches and (b) remove, bag, and trash – don’t compost – the clippings and any debris or mulch that’s near the plants.
Pumpkin Spice Latte has returned, and coffee drinkers everywhere are rejoicing.
So why isn’t this wildly popular drink offered year-round, asks Joseph Tychonievich in the current issue of Michigan Gardening. Because then, he says, “we’d drink it, grow tired of it, move on, and forget about it. The fact that this special drink only comes around once a year makes it special.”
And we gardeners can learn from this, Joseph says. “Often in the garden we gravitate to things that bloom or look good for as long as possible,” but “gardens aren’t some math problem. . . . The really important harvest is not flowers or even food, but joy. So maybe it is time to step back a little from all of the long-blooming, forever-performing plants and embrace flowers that . . . instead inspire us with wild joy, anticipation, and glee.”
His top suggestion, we’re happy to say, is peonies – and we’re offering more than ever this fall! Although they don’t bloom forever, “for a few glorious weeks in late May or early June, they’ll positively cover themselves with huge, extravagant, powerfully fragrant flowers.”
“You'll look forward to that . . . all year long. As the buds swell, you'll check them each day. When they finally open, you'll sit next to them drinking in the rich scent. You'll cut armloads of them. . . . You may even throw a party in their honor.”
Of course “it doesn’t have to be peonies,” Joseph adds. “Find a plant that you truly love, that really thrives and performs in your garden, ignore the fact that it only blooms for a couple weeks in a year, and then plant them by the dozens and revel deeply in the sheer magic of their performance.
“Don't let anyone tell you they aren't practical. Gardening is about passion, not practicality. . . . Remember the lesson of the Pumpkin Spice Latte and keep some magic and anticipation in your garden.”
If “a display of great big gorgeous flowers is what you are after,” writes Eleanor Perenyi in her timeless classic Green Thoughts (1981), “herbaceous peonies are my choice.”
Why? Unlike tree peonies, “herbaceous peonies stand straight and tall, don’t hide their heads, and are magnificent for cutting. They aren’t temperamental, deciding, for inscrutable reasons, to withhold their bloom for a year. They are almost immortal, even when hopelessly neglected in the backyards of old farms.” And although “all peonies suffer when a heavy rain hits them,” all they need is “a good shake to revive.”
As for fragrance, “peony scents vary greatly,” Perenyi notes, “from one so like a rose I couldn’t, in the dark, tell the difference, to an acrid sweetness not unlike the lilac’s. The doubles smell better than the singles and the herbaceous better than the tree peonies – to me.”
Heirloom peonies are rich in beauty, fragrance, and memories – but have you ever tried drinking them?
Now you can, thanks to Three Meadows Spirits, a New York-state micro-distillery. Headquartered in an 18th-century farmhouse, Three Meadows is part of the booming American craft spirits industry. Its unique Peony Vodka is subtly flavored with a blend of nine natural ingredients including “tincture of peony” derived from the roots of an antique row of peonies growing at the farm of founder Leslie Farhangi.
Although herbalists in Europe and China have used peony root for centuries to treat a variety of ills, Three Meadows claims only that its vodka is versatile and delicious.
Learn more in this recent article or visit the Three Meadows website where a big, beautiful peony bud on their homepage opens to full bloom in less than 30 seconds. And if you’d like to try a glass of Peony Vodka yourself – maybe as you sit in the garden on a warm summer evening – you can order it online here. To peonies!
America’s First Peony – and One of Louise Beebe Wilder’s Favorites
The vast majority of the peonies grown today are cultivars of the Asian Paeonia lactiflora, the first of which arrived here from China in the early 1800s causing a sensation.
But long before the lactifloras appeared, the colonists were growing a completely different species, the European P. officinalis, which had been revered as a medicinal herb since ancient times. (Officinalis means “of the [apothecary] shops.”)
Since they bloom a week or two earlier than the lactifloras, the officinalis clan came to be called May-flowering peonies. Double red ‘Rubra Plena’ was the most popular form, especially in the 19th century when it decorated the graves of so many Civil War veterans that it was called the Memorial Day peony.
But times change, and as the Civil War faded in the past and hundreds of exciting new lactiflora peonies were introduced, the old officinalis peonies gradually fell out of fashion.
“Today the May-flowering peony is neglected,” wrote the great American garden writer Louise Beebe Wilder in 1927. Yet “in peaceful old gardens that remain unfretted by changing fashions and modern introductions we are apt to find huge bushes of the old May-flowering peony or “piny” as it is called in country neighborhoods. . . .”
Several officinalis peonies grew in the Maryland garden of Wilder’s childhood. “There was the “old crimson” [‘Rubra Plena’],” she wrote, “which is yet one of my favorite peonies and exhibits almost the richest color that I know. There was a full pink sort that we children called the ‘strawberry-ice-cream peony,’ and there was a loose-petalled white one.” When she later bought an old house and garden in New York, Wilder was “happy to find those sweet and wholesome friends of my childhood growing in the tangled dooryard.”
Ancient, herbal, early-blooming, richly colored, and enduring – why not add P. officinalis‘Rubra Plena’ to your dooryard this fall?
Lush and romantic, peonies are fabulous in bouquets. To get the most out of yours, here are some tips from Dr. Patricia Holloway of the University of Alaska, as quoted by Debra Prinzing in her 2013 Slow Flowers:
“‘Cut peonies during the coolest part of the day. Cut once you see the true color of the flower with one or two petals separating at the top [the “soft marshmallow” stage] – or any time after that. Then the flower will continue to open in your arrangement.’ If you cut prior to this stage the buds either will not open or they will be stunted. Fully-opened blooms can also be harvested, but their vase life is shorter. . . .
“Dr. Holloway also offers this commercial growers’ tip; ‘Once cut, your flowers should be chilled in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours and up to one week before putting them into a vase. That chilling very definitely extends vase life.’ Wrap the peonies in paper towels and lay them flat in the crisper drawer, away from the refrigerator’s other contents.”
We’ll also remind you that for future growth and bloom it’s best to leave as much foliage as possible on the plant. This is especially important during the first two years after planting, and in fact many experts recommend that you cut NO flowers the first year. We know how hard that can be, but your patience will be rewarded.
Just in time for peony season, the website of the American Peony Society has added a finder’s guide to 77 peony-rich public gardens in 30 states from Maine to California.
The gardens range from well-known sites to fascinating smaller gardens such as Sisson’s Peony Gardens in Wisconsin and the Shacksboro Schoolhouse Museum in New York with its collection of nearly 200 heritage varieties. Some sites make it surprisingly hard to find information about their peonies, but if a search for “peony” or “paeonia” returns no results, you can always call the garden and talk to a human being.
The guide also lists 28 peony gardens in other countries, including many in China where peonies have been revered for centuries. Altogether there’s a total of 105 gardens waiting for you to explore at americanpeonysociety.org/links/peony-gardens.
Au Naturel – Although we always look for strong stems when we’re evaluating peonies for our catalog, even the strongest stems will bow when their gloriously double flowers are drenched by rain. If you gently shake the water out immediately afterwards, most of the time they’ll stand back up, so most gardeners simply cross their fingers and grow their peonies without support, au naturel.
Cheap and Easy – Although garden centers offer all sorts of wire-ring and linking-stake supports for peonies, most of these are surprisingly pricey. A less expensive option (and what we usually do here at OHG) is to cut a wire-ring tomato tower in half just above one of the rings, so you have two shorter towers. Use the narrower one for newly-planted peonies or smaller perennials, and the wider one for mature peonies. Set it over the plant, pushing the legs securely into the soil. The earlier you do this the better, because once the plant has leafed out you’ll need a helper – or twine – to contain the foliage while you slip the support over it. Leave some stems and foliage outside the support for a more relaxed, natural-looking plant and to hide the wire which is virtually invisible anyway, especially once it rusts.
The Hildene Star – There’s a better, more historic way they use to support the 175 peonies at Hildene, the summer home of President Lincoln’s son in Manchester, Vermont. Basically you insert five short stakes in a circle at the outer edges of the plant, weave twine back and forth to create a star, and then finish by circling the stakes with twine. Hildene’s Andrea Luchini offers complete instructions. Although I can’t imagine doing it for 175 peonies, for a few it’s actually kind of fun.
Although peonies are rarely bothered by pests or diseases, powdery mildew has become a problem in some areas. We first wrote about it in 2012, and expert Don Hollingsworth recently offered his perspective in the APS Bulletin. Don has been growing peonies since the 1930s but he says “it was not until 2014 that I noticed the striking sight of white mildew” on a few of the hundreds of peonies at his farm in Missouri. He searched the web but found no explanation as to “why powdery mildew is only now taking hold on peonies, while it has long been known to affect other commonly grown ornamental plants.”
To control it, Don says “the first line of defense is to clean up and destroy all infected plant parts at season’s end” to prevent spores from overwintering – and earlier is better than later. Instead of waiting until late fall, cut infected plants to the ground and carefully bag and remove all foliage “before the leaves dry up, which is best accomplished well before frost.” Don also offers a recipe for a preventative spray by the Massachusetts Master Gardeners: “In a quart of water add a few drops of liquid dish soap and a teaspoon of baking soda.” That’s similar to the spray we recommended two years ago: Mix 1 tablespoon of baking soda and 1 tablespoon of horticultural oil (or vegetable oil) in a gallon of water. Spray weekly throughout the spring, using a new mix every time and avoiding overuse to prevent a build-up of salts in the soil.
“Peonies play a significant part in the omnium gatherum of June odors,” Louise Beebe Wilder wrote in her 1932 classic The Fragrant Path. “Peonies do not, of course, all smell alike, and many of them have practically no smell at all. Few of the single kinds are markedly sweet-scented, nor are [most of the red ones]. The purest and most delicious quality of scent is found in the various pale pink varieties [such as ‘Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt’ and deeper-pink ‘Edulis Superba’] and in the white and blush-colored kinds [such as ‘Elsa Sass’].
Beebe also claimed that Paeonia tenuifolia, the fern-leaf peony is fragrant. This surprised me because I’ve grown it for years and never noticed that – so if you’ve sniffed it, please let us know what you found.” Several Paeonia species have fragrant flowers,” she wrote, “among them the little red flowered P. tenuifolia, from the Ukraine called the Adonis peony because of the similarity of its feathery foliage to that of the Adonis. It is a charming little species, suitable for and in harmony with the rock garden as well as for border life. It is the first of its race to bloom and after the flowering is past and seed has matured, the plant dies to the ground and is seen no more until the following spring. So mark well its dwelling that you may not injure it in digging about.”
Our friends at the University of Michigan Peony Garden – the country’s largest collection of historic peonies – are beaming.
In February the Plant Collections Network of the American Public Gardens Association awarded the Garden “full status accreditation.” On June 1 their efforts to restore, catalog, expand, and bring the Garden online will be showcased at the American Peony Society’s national convention. And the Garden’s impressive new website is now online at mbgna.umich.edu/peony/.
In the early 1900s, peonies reigned as one of the country’s leading cut-flowers, in part because they can be stored in bud for months. Yes, months! And it’s surprisingly easy.
Here’s how you can do it yourself, in an article adapted from The American Cottage Gardener magazine by our good friend Nancy McDonald.
“Choose perfect buds of semi-double to double varieties (the heaviest ‘bomb’ types and singles don’t work as well). In the cool of early morning or late evening, cut buds on six-inch stems, just as the petals begin to loosen but are not yet open.
“Place in gallon-size, zip-lock freezer bags. I put ten to twelve buds per bag, with half the heads facing one way and half the other. Wet a small, new, cellulose sponge or clean dishcloth, wring it out so it’s just barely damp, and put it in the bag. Gently work as much air as possible out of the bag and seal it.
“Store flat in your refrigerator. You may wish to put the bag in a plastic storage box, so the buds don't get bruised by people rummaging for that last chicken leg. Make sure everyone in the house knows that they are not to be eaten.
“After the peonies outdoors are just a fragrant memory, start enjoying your stored ones. Cut an inch of stem (underwater is best) and put the peony in water all the way up to the bud. Within half an hour it will begin to open. Arrange in a vase or float in a bowl of water (a charming way to display peonies anytime). Floating ones seem to last the longest.
“Trim stems an inch shorter each day, if needed. Using this simple technique, I have stored buds for as long as three months, and dazzled everyone with bouquets in early September.”