Tree peony

A Paeonia ostii (a tree peony) in Kit’s garden.

Quick: Can you think of an Alaskan horticultural export that grows well in North Carolina? The answer is the peony, Alaska’s sole contribution to horticulture.

It turns out that peonies comprise a rather complicated genus. Most peonies — but by no means all — are herbaceous perennials. There is general disagreement over how many species peonies — those peonies that arose on their own — exist, with estimates falling between 22-40. There are also more than 3,000 cultivars, all limited to cold climates if they are going to bloom.

All are winter hardy plants that grow slowly but will live for more than a century. All require 900 hours around freezing if they are to produce flowers. Today, there are three different types of peonies to choose from:

1. Herbaceous peonies die back to the ground after the first frost. They develop what I call the I-just-had-a-baby appearance after their 7-10 day bloom cycle. Many of their blooms are notably fragrant.

2. Tree peonies, with their woody stems, can reach a height of 7 feet and carry the largest blooms of all the peonies.

3. Itoh peonies, the issue of a marriage between the tree and herbaceous peonies, are herbaceous and bear larger yellow and gold flowers than the herbaceous peonies. Their bloom time in the longest of all the peonies, lasting three to four weeks.

Peonies have a lot going for them. The flower industry loves them, they’re tough, unappetizing to eat, long-lived, drought tolerant and disease resistant. How can you tell if you have an herbaceous peony or a tree peony? If it has wood, don’t cut it back — it’s truly that simple.

These are not plants that warm the hearts of gardeners demanding instant gratification. It can take as long as 10 years for some to reach their mature size — and it can take several years before they produce flowers. Unlike the herbaceous and Itoh peonies that bloom on new growth, tree peonies bloom on old growth so should not be cut back.

Because the slow growing Itoh peonies are relatively new on the market, they are somewhat expensive. You can find a small selection of Itoh peonies at: https://www.thelilygarden.com and a larger selection at: https://www.treepeony.com.

All peonies need well-draining soil and five hours of sun. They benefit both from water during a drought and an initial feeding of 10-10-10 fertilizer at the beginning of the growing season. Plan the site carefully as peonies resent replanting — a move in the garden results in a sulking plant that refuses to bloom for a couple of years.

Early spring or fall are good times to plant peonies. Tree peonies will arrive bareroot along with instructions for planting. The ultimate aim is to encourage the plant to put out a good root system before it puts out leaves. Peonies are relatively free of pests and diseases. However, they do not grow well in pots, as their roots need room to expand. For further information go to: www.americanpeonysociety.org.

Then sit back and enjoy your peonies. This is one plant you can basically ignore if you meet its basic requirements — and have some patience, as peonies insist on doing their thing in their own time.

Absent from their gardens, Kit and Lise enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of horticulture and suburban living. More on Instagram @AbsenteeGardener or email: info@absentee-gardener.com.

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