Colorful, fragrant, magnificent peonies

By Marilyn McKinley

Certified Ohio volunteer naturalist

When I was growing up, a sure sign of early summer was the blooming of the peonies. I would watch the big buds daily because I knew blooming peonies meant school was out for summer, I could now go barefoot outside and pick bundles of these beauties to bring into the house. Mom made me shake ’em hard so we wouldn’t get “big sugar ants” in the house. Yes, ants are attracted to the sugars on the blooms, but the ants on peonies will not “bring ants into the house.” Furthermore, the ants are not eating the flowers or pollinating anything. These are an example of gardening old wives’ tales still believed by many.

Peonies are a perennial delight. You find them around old stately mansions and the humblest of farmhouses. Their large, sweetly scented blooms are of easy culture and long-lived. They are magnificent and make for excellent cut flower arrangements.

Blooms are shades of white, pink, red, and now yellow, coral and lavender. If selecting for fragrance, the double pink seems to have the heaviest scent. Most peonies need to be staked, the single bloomers tend to withstand thunderstorms and the bends are better than double varieties.

Peonies are not for the impatient gardener. They are sometimes fussy about being moved. Plants purchased as bare root may not bloom for two to three years. There is an old saying that they should be divided or planted “at the nines.” That means they prefer to be moved at 9 a.m. on the ninth day of the ninth month. In truth, you dig and move at almost any time. Choose a cooler day and retain as much root soil as possible. Do not plant too deep. That is a common mistake. Water deeply and give temporary shade to keep them from wilting. Peonies love the sunshine. I top-dress mine each spring with compost. They do not like too much nitrogen, to be overcrowded, or have to compete with the roots of other plants.

Botrytis is a common fungal disease affecting peonies. Characteristics are: Plants may bloom fairly well but have a few buds that never open and may turn brown or gray and become fuzzy. Leaves may develop spots or wilt. To deal with botrytis, prune the affected parts and thoroughly clean your pruners. In the fall, cut the plant to the ground, discard the foliage and stems in the trash; do not put them in the compost pile. This year-end care is recommended even if you don’t think you have had a problem with botrytis.

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