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These old-fashioned charmers are headturners PEONIES

Thursday, May 11, 2017

By Pam Baytos

OSU master gardener volunteer

Gorgeous blossoms, handsome foliage and a hardy nature are outstanding qualities of the peony (Paeonia spp.), and the reason they’re so popular with gardeners.

Herbaceous peonies are long-lived perennials with lush blooms in a rainbow of colors and often a strong sweet fragrance, and they’re hardy in Zones 3 to 8.

There are hundreds of peony cultivars to choose from with a range of flower forms, bloom times and color.

By selecting from early-, mid- and late-season bloomers, you can have peonies in bloom from spring to early summer.

Peonies are classified by flower form as single, semi-double, double, (including the “bomb” types such as “Raspberry Sundae”) or Japanese. Single and semi-double peonies feature central clusters of bright yellow stamens, while the stamens in the Japanese varieties have been replaced by showier narrow, petallike structures called staminodes.

Classic peony flower colors range from white to many shades of red and pink. Coral cultivars such as “Coral Charm,” “Coral Sunset” and yellow have become available with the intersectional (or Itoh) hybrids, which are crosses between tree and herbaceous peonies that retain the herbaceous plant form. Some to try are “Garden Treasure,” “Bartzella” and “Yellow Emperor.”

Even after the flowers are gone, peonies live on with their mass of dark green foliage that makes a nice backdrop for lower-growing perennials.

You can plant container-grown peonies any time, but spring or fall is ideal. The best time to plant new bare-root peonies is early fall. That’s also the perfect time to dig, divide and replant existing plants.

Years ago at a big-box store fall clearance, I carried home a “dead-looking” peony stick which I nurtured. It now blooms every year.

Plant them in full sun, and they prefer fertile, moist, well-drained soil with a pH of 6.0 to 7.0. Give them plenty of space to grow. Peonies grow from a crown at the top of a mass of thick roots. The plump buds (known as eyes) that will produce next year’s growth can be seen poking up from the crown.

When dividing, try to keep at least 3 to 5 eyes per division.

Planting depth is critical. The crown should be planted 2 inches below the soil surface. Peonies won’t flower well if planted too deep.

To keep plants tidy, deadhead flowers as they fade. A yearly top dressing of compost will add nutrients and hold soil moisture. Once established, peonies can tolerate moderate drought, but they’ll grow best if given deep soaks during dry periods.

Don’t worry about ants climbing on your buds, they neither help nor harm the plant; they’re just attracted to the nectar.

For details on varieties for cutting, new varieties for your garden and more, visit go.osu.edu/morepeonies.