Best peonies for the D.C. area

Adrian Higgins
Gardening columnist May 11, 2011

Before any of us were born, plant breeders looked at the Chinese peony and decided that if a variety had many petals, its offspring would look much better with far more.

Nature may give us a plant with a handful of petals; the hybridizers want a bloom stuffed with dozens, maybe hundreds of petals. Gardeners describe these gluttonous flowers as “fully double.” They’re the floral equivalent of turkeys so meaty they can’t fly. You see the fully double surfeit in roses, camellias, even daffodils.

Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the "Washington Post Garden Book" and "Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden." View Archive

In the case of the overstuffed peonies, they require a huge effort just to open, become top-heavy on wiry stalks and then wait for the first dousing rain to send them to the ground. For one thing, their petals trap the water. They’re sort of doomed, even if the gardener goes to the considerable effort of staking the bushes in early spring and keeps them watered in dry years to ensure proper bud growth. Gardeners who try to fix a rain-splayed peony bush may as well try to repackage a newly unwrapped dress shirt.

Peonies — which are beloved, not least for their longevity — are also unhappy in warm climates such as ours. They get enough winter chilling here, which they need, but they flower just as the heat appears, and a couple of days in the 80s or higher will abbreviate the show.

Happily, the peony is not a lost cause in the mid-Atlantic, far from it, but you have to make smart choices to get the most out of it. The first wise decision might be to dig up that beloved old floppy peony and place it by the curb: “Free to Bad Home.”

Peonies used to fall into two distinct categories. Tree peonies aren’t trees but slow-growing deciduous shrubs. They tend to have big flowers with a single ring of petals, or a double ring, typically around a showy boss of stamens. You can find double-flowered tree peonies, but I think the simpler ones are more elegant given the sheer size of the bloom. If you have the patience (they take five years to get going), they become in­cred­ibly serene additions to the spring garden. They bloom early, with the wisteria.

The second and more iconic version is the bush or herbaceous peony now beginning to burst forth — and flop. Success with these is driven by choosing the right variety: generally smaller-flowered ones on shorter stems. By also picking early- and mid-season bloomers, you will have long-flowering plants in the mildness of early May.

A peony refuge

If you want to see good peonies for our area, mark May 21 on your calendar, when Gail Gee opens her Howard County garden to visitors to raise money for Brookside Gardens in Wheaton. Gee has created an extravagant, plant-driven paradise in the three acres around her home in Fulton. A lot of the emphasis is on careful planting combinations of perennials, and this month marks the arrival of her discerning world of peonies.

The tree peonies are winding down, but Gee has excellent examples of both herbaceous peonies and a third type created somewhat bizarrely between woody and herbaceous types known as Itoh or intersectional peonies.

Her earliest herbaceous peony forms a compact mound of deeply cut leaves that become smothered in late April with single magenta-red blooms. It’s called Little Red Gem, which just about sums it up.

A saunter through the gate to her rear garden reveals another herbaceous variety, Claire de Lune. It’s an oldie but goodie: The bush is quite large, covered in leaves and full of eye-catching single-flowered blooms, ivory colored with golden stamens. She leads me to a third herbaceous variety, Lady Gay. This is another single that opens cream but soon becomes suffused with pink.

The intersectionals behave like herbaceous peonies — dying back fully to the ground in the fall — but they have the best traits of the woody types: In addition to being self-supporting, they have full foliage down to the ground, large, ruffled flowers, and handsome leaves that persist all season. This class of hybrids grows faster and blooms sooner than the tree peony. “I just can’t believe how good the plant is,” said Gee.

Breeders have so far produced some 50 varieties of intersectionals: Gee has 43 of them. One, Border Charm, is just two feet high but almost twice that across and forms a mound of blue-green foliage. It opens a light yellow with red flares at the base of the petals. “Its foliage goes all the way down to the ground, so it can be at the front of the border,” she said.

She has one of the first, and still one of the best, intersectional varieties: Bartzella. It is a lemon yellow with a citrus scent held above clean-looking gray-green foliage.

Gee has approximately 300 varieties of peony in her garden, and they are all self-supporting except the classic, pink and blowzy Sarah Bernhardt, which she had to have for its nostalgic value. Still, it’s on its own. “I let it fall on the sedum,” she said.

It seems as if the intersectionals are the way to go. I have two in my garden, and they are getting larger and more floriferous every year. Intersectionals are hard to produce and expensive, typically between $40 and $100 each, but they function as a specimen shrub that will please for years, if not decades.

“They’re a better peony for our warm weather,” said Gee. “They hold up, bloom for a long time, and they are really starting to catch on in this area.”

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