by Ken Lain, the mountain gardener
Perennial peonies are found growing 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. In China, they are prized 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, 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, due to the summer’s intense heat, peonies benefit from shade through mid-day. Grow peony plants in a soil that is fertile and well-drained, 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 the peony plant into it. I cannot stress enough the importance of drainage for peonies. 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 March all you’ll see is the rebirth of the crown poking through the soil. In April each plant will be growing actively with flower buds soon to follow.
Landscaping with Peonies
Peonies often are planted individually. When sharing perennial beds with other flowers, due to their sizable maturity, they should be planted towards the back of the garden. More often, peonies are planted in groups, side by side, to form a row. They make a bold statement in the garden 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 get heavy, especially after a monsoon rain. Trimming back and disposing of the foliage in autumn helps prevent disease. Other conditions may cause a gradual decline in your peony health. If you see one specimen is stunted while the peony plants around it are blooming normally, 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 back 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 fragrance.
Plant peonies in gardens near entrances and patios where their fragrance can be enjoyed readily. Lisa and I grow a stunning Itoh peony, the most fragrant of all perennials, in a large container. Placed by the entrance to our house, it’s unavoidably enjoyed by all approaching the front door.
While their blooming period is short, even the foliage of peonies is sufficiently attractive to warrant planting in a cozy corner near a doorstep. The peony plants with double flowers tend to be the most fragrant. To extend the blooming season, “stagger” your selection of varieties. Select some that bloom early, others late, and others that bloom sometime in between.
As if their stunning beauty and heady fragrance weren’t enough, peony plants are also exceedingly long-lived. Peonies are unlike many other perennials, in that they do not need to be divided regularly. 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 selection of peony plants that are just coming into their spring bloom. Now is the ideal time to add some peonies for perennial colors in your gardens.
Watters 58th Spring Open House – consider this a personal invitation:)
We’ve stocked up on fruits, trees, blooming shrubs, and flowers for this year’s event, and brought our growers from the farm to share their knowledge with local gardeners. 2020 gardens can be started now, and we are celebrating all weekend!
Until next issue, I’ll be helping local gardeners grow the perfect flowers here at Watters Garden Center.