by Ken Lain, the mountain gardener
Perennial peonies grow naturally in the gardens of Europe, China, and the Western U.S. From one corner of the globe to another, peony plants have been transplanted and admired. Asia prizes the plant for medicinal uses, with the root of white peony used to treat liver problems. The early Greeks and Romans also found medicinal purposes for peonies.
Peony derives its name from a Greek myth. Paeon, a student under Aesculapius, the god of medicine, was well aware of the medicinal qualities of peony plants. He used them to heal a wound suffered by the god Pluto. The upstaged Aesculapius was displeased and threatened retribution. In one of those charming metamorphoses of Greek mythology, Pluto saved Paeon’s life by turning him into a peony plant.
Original “Peony” and How to Pronounce
The standard pronunciation is pee’-uh-nee (accent on the first syllable). However, many people place emphasis on the second syllable: pee-oh’-nee. As is often the case with anglicized versions of Latin words, rulings on what should be the standard pronunciation are somewhat arbitrary. In Arizona, it’s safest to stick with the standard pronunciation: pee’-uh-nee.
Best Sun, Soil, and Food
These fragrant flowers prefer full sun. An exception to this rule applies to gardens below the 4500-foot elevation where peonies benefit from shade through mid-day due to the summer’s intense heat. Grow peony plants in fertile and well-drained soil, with a pH of 6.0 – 7.0, or as acidic as possible in the Arizona mountains. Spring feed with Watters 7-4-4 All Purpose Food, and a generous application of Soil Sulfur for more fragrant flowers
Planting Peonies in the Garden
Dig a shallow, wide hole and set your peony plant. I cannot stress the importance of drainage for peonies enough. Amend the soil heavily with WattersPremium Mulch and water well with Root & Grow to stimulate new root growth, the best additives when transplanting flowers. Through early Spring, you will see the rebirth of the crown poking through the soil. In April, each plant will grow actively, with flower buds soon to follow. May and June, their beauty fills the gardens.
Landscaping with Peonies
Peonies often are planted individually. Due to their sizable maturity, perennial beds should be planted towards the back of the garden when sharing perennial beds with other flowers. Peonies are often planted in groups, side by side, to form a row. They make a bold statement when planted in this traditional style of formal English gardens.
Peony Plant Care
Support peony plants with stakes or hoops, just as you would tomatoes. The large blooms are heavy, especially after a monsoon rain. Trimming back and disposing of the foliage in autumn prevent disease. Other conditions may cause a gradual decline in peony health. If you see one specimen stunted while the peony plants around it usually blooming, remove and destroy that plant before it infects the others around it. Peonies like to be mulched heavily through winter. Apply a 2-3″ layer of shredded cedar bark over your plants after the foliage has died in autumn.
Finer Points on Peonies
Often, when we see pictures of huge, beautiful flowers in books, we assume they come from the tropics. Mother Nature made an exception with mountain peonies. These cold-hardy perennials grow in temperatures as low as -20 degrees. They even grow in the most frigid north-facing gardens of Arizona. Peonies can hold their own with the most beautiful tropical flowers but with far better fragrances.
Plant peonies in gardens near entrances and patios where their fragrance is enjoyed readily. Lisa and I grow stunning Itoh peonies, the most fragrant of all perennials, in large containers. Placed by the entrance to our home, it’s unavoidably enjoyed by all who approach.
Peony plants with double flowers are the most fragrant. Even the foliage of peonies is sufficiently attractive to warrant planting in a cozy corner near a doorstep. To extend the blooming season, “stagger” your varieties. Purposely plant early blooming varieties, others late, with others that bloom between.
As if stunning beauty and heady fragrance weren’t enough, peony plants are exceedingly long-lived. Peonies are unlike other perennials in that they rarely need to be divided. In fact, they dislike being disturbed. If you do divide them to increase your stock, autumn is the best season to do so.
Watters Garden Center has the best peony plants just coming into spring bloom. Now is the ideal time to add some fragrance to your perennial gardens.
Until next week, I’ll be helping local gardeners grow the perfect flowers here at Watters Garden Center.
Ken Lain can be found throughout the week at Watters Garden Center, 1815 Iron Springs Rd in Prescott, or contacted through his web site at WattersGardenCenter.com or Top10Flowers.com.