Look after your peonies and they'll brighten your garden

Peter Dowdall has advice on caring for these perennial favourites
Look after your peonies and they'll brighten your garden
The 'Bowl of Beauty' peony variety.
The 'Bowl of Beauty' peony variety.

PEONIES  have done remarkably well in gardens throughout Ireland this year or is that simply because I and those like me have just had more time at home to appreciate them?

They have thrived in the sunny and dry conditions of April and May and have repaid the kindness of the weather by blooming prolifically over the last two months.

These perennial favourites are one of the most impressive, blousy, abundant and luxurious blooms in the garden. Their flower heads nearly seem unnatural, developing in just a few short days, from a small golfball-sized bud to one the size of a large cricket ball before it opens in a fanfare of petals and colour.

I received a beautiful gift of a plant root from Lesley Fennell on a visit to the fabulous Burtown House in Co Kildare a few years back. It took a while but last month that that gift came into its own, a beautiful, single-flowering peony, the name of which I cannot remember, I find with age, I am becoming less concerned about names and simply more aware with the beauty of a plant, you could call it laziness.

It looks like an off-white in colour from the outside but peer inside the beautiful blooms and they are a blush, soft apricot-pink in colour. The single layer of petals surrounding what I can only describe as the most sensational display of stamens that I have seen in a flower.

It is, like many garden beauties very short-lived in flower but it seems to be clumping up quite freely and so I will position it in a few more places during the winter.

Peonies
Peonies

Paeonia, to give them their botanical name, have many different flower forms, everything from the single, which I referred to and including Japanese and anemone form, chrysanthemum form, globular form and crown proliferation form, the hint is in the name, a veritable proliferation of petals.

For the bees, the fewer petals the better for the nectar and pollen is much more available to them and easier to access than flowers with masses of petals.

Two garden favourites are Sarah Bernhardt and Bowl of Beauty, both striking pink forms and deserving in their popularity for they are quite beautiful to behold in full bloom, the former producing enormous, pale pink, double flowers filled with ruffled petals of the palest, baby pink you can imagine. The latter, Bowl of Beauty sounds similar when I write that it is also pink, a Japanese-form flower type, but words can only do so much for it is in fact very different. Its outer petals are nearly cerise pink and inside this bowl of beautiful pink petals is filled with creamy-coloured petaloids, a really aptly named cultivar with a very sweet scent. Both are suitable for picking as cut flowers and this is best done when in bud so that they will survive a long time in the vase.

There are several species and many cultivars or varieties of peony but they can largely be broken down into two types: herbaceous and tree peony.

The herbaceous peonies die back underground each winter, they are the classic, flouncy peony flowers which are so often used as cut flowers and in bridal bouquets, and hang out in the best of glossy magazine pages.

Meanwhile, the lesser-known tree paeonies, many of which are grafted to the species, Paeonia x suffruticosa, don’t become trees as such, though they can reach a height of two metres when mature and with a similar spread. Their flowers are normally but not always single in form and are sweetly but in my opinion, not strongly, fragrant. As the name suggests, they do not die back underground during winter, rather they simply shed their leaves like other deciduous trees or shrubs.

Having once been China’s national plant, Paeonia x suffruticosa has since been deposed but it remains an important symbolic plant there, with strong connections to wealth and honour along with feminine beauty and love.

Paeonia lutea var ludlowii is a well-known tree peony in Ireland. I think, from memory that it was in Garnish Island as a small child that I first discovered its beauty and it has stayed with me ever since. Simple, single, vivid yellow flowers are borne quite freely during May.

Both herbaceous and tree peonies like full sun and well-drained soil and they can take several years to establish and thus to flower, but once they are happy in their situation your garden will be blessed for years to come for these are long-lived plants.

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