Fashion and taste come and go in the garden like anywhere else, but peonies are the rarest of blooms — they have never been out of style.
Their appeal rests on their outsize beauty, pure and simple. The frilliest forms are in-your-face flamboyant, and even the more restrained varieties are irresistibly big and eye-catching. The colors range from snow white to romantic blush to blood red. Some varieties are as perfumed as the sweetest rose or lily.
Another compelling trait of the peony is that it is the giant tortoise of the garden; once established, it just keeps plodding along. It is not unusual to savor peonies planted decades ago by your parents or grandparents, or some long-forgotten gardener. This longevity is a blessing and sometimes a curse. Because a plant survives so long, peonies are intertwined with childhood experience and memory. They have that floral mojo called nostalgia.
Peonies inhabit two parallel universes: As a beloved late-spring garden perennial and as a cut flower fully and extravagantly embraced by America’s wedding emporium.
In both realms, some of the old varieties, such as the frilly, white Festiva Maxima or the ruffled, soft-pink Sarah Bernhardt, remain worthy and popular, but many of the immortal peonies that inhabit our gardens are now second-rate compared with newer offerings.
Your current peony might be performing poorly for a number of reasons. Some problems can be fixed by moving a peony or improving its care, but other traits are not fixable. I’m thinking of that twin failing: the peony plant that sprawls at the first sign of a spring storm, and the bloom that is too big and heavy for its flimsy stem, so it breaks.
Modern varieties have been bred as “shorter, stronger plants that are more weather-resistant,” said Roy Klehm, a fourth-generation grower and breeder whose company, Klehm’s Song Sparrow Farm and Nursery, is based in Avalon, Wis. Add to the mix stronger colors and better flower form, and the case for modern hybrids is made. Yes, peonies are pricey, but few other flowering plants live so long or are so showy.
Peonies come in three basic types: as the common herbaceous perennial that dies to the ground each winter, as a deciduous shrub named the tree peony and as a hybrid between the two, called an intersectional. Both tree peonies and intersectionals tend to have enormous flowers that appear earlier than regular peonies, usually as single or semi-double forms with highly decorative central stamens.
Most garden and florist’s peonies are of the herbaceous type, and while most people distinguish them by color, they vary, too, in the architecture of their blooms.
Some are single or semi-double with decorative stamens, others have a pompon of central petals, and others are fully double. In modern varieties, the outer, or guard, petals have a rigidity that holds the bloom together agreeably.
Although their season is short, peonies have always been a popular florist’s flower. In recent years, “market demand has soared,” said Richard Currie, a flower grower originally from Zimbabwe but who now owns the oldest peony-growing business in the United States — Styer’s Peonies — dating to 1890. Based in Chadds Ford, Pa., he has fields on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, in southeastern Pennsylvania and in Upstate New York, locations that together yield a six-week harvest from early May to late June. Currie sells to the fancy wholesale markets in New York and Boston, to Whole Foods and, online, to anyone.
“It’s an event flower, mainly,” Currie said. “Weddings, parties, events. You have to have that peony looking perfect for 12 hours. It’s all about the show and the moment.” (With proper care, cut peonies can look good in the vase for the better part of a week.)
The peony has been buoyed by the same forces that have propelled the garden rose to contemporary popularity: First as part of Martha Stewart’s multimedia orgy of elegance and more recently by the surfeit of images on social-media sites such as Pinterest. Florists today expect every bride-to-be to arrive at a meeting with digital picture boards.
The softer pinks, whites and blushes figure prominently in bouquets, and many brides like a fully double pink because it photographs well, said Jennifer “Jo” Oliver, whose floral design studio, Highway to Hill, is in Northeast Washington.
But as the softness of spring yields to the sultry weather of summer, “the stronger colors really work well,” she said, including magenta, golden yellow, crimson and purple.
Trained as an artist, she sees value in adding the smaller blooms of roses and sweet peas to an arrangement, to relieve the drama of the peony and to guide the eye through the arrangement, much as a hierarchy of plantings steers you through the garden, she said.
“Peonies tend to be a little bit bossy,” she said. “It’s nice to have big moments, but your eye needs places to go.”
Choose a location carefully: Peonies prefer to be left in peace once planted, and they need a location free of root competition from trees or large shrubs, a site that is free draining, and a location that is sunny or in light or filtered shade. The roots are planted in the early fall with the crowns set an inch or two below the surface. Peonies benefit from a little fertilization after flowering, but avoid a high-nitrogen feed, which will diminish blooming. Excessive water from automatic irrigation systems may cause them to rot.
Peony plants lose much of their gloss after blooming. Currie suggests placing plants in a transitional area of the garden “where they will fade, because they’re ‘now’ and then they’re done,” he said.
Few urban and suburban gardeners have the luxury of a remote sunny space for cut flower gardens, but established peony plants can provide “cuts” for the home. However, if you take too many flower stalks, or take them when the plant is too young, you will weaken it and diminish its future vigor.
Wait until the peony has been in the ground for three winters before cutting stems. And then take no more than one-third of the flowering stems. If you take every stem, you remove much of the foliage that the plant needs to build strength. “And you don’t have to pick them to the ground,” Klehm said. “Leave two or three leaves on a stem.”
The other skill is in picking them at the optimum moment. “The most important thing with cut peonies is getting the cut stage right,” Currie said, “and to do that you have to walk the fields. It’s a matter of three or four hours making the difference between the flower being too tight or too blown.” How can you tell?
Place two fingers under the bud and your thumb on top. If it doesn’t give, it’s not ready. It should have the feel of a marshmallow, perhaps a little harder. But if it feels as if you’re pressing on a nut, leave it for later.
After cutting, the stems should be conditioned by placing them — dry — in the fridge (not freezer) for a few hours. Then recut them and place them in a bucket of water overnight. They will then be ready for the vase. As with any cut flowers, you should make fresh cuts when they go in the vase, keep foliage above the water line and replace the water every two or three days before it gets cloudy.
I cared this way for a bunch of Coral Charm that Currie gave me. They made it to the vase on a Sunday and were still going strong the following Friday. Oliver likes the way this popular variety not only opens into chalices during its life but also shifts from a strong magenta to a soft pink. Even divas, it seems, mellow as they age.