Peonies, Glorious Peonies!

     There is no flower that has the sumptious and bodacious beauty of a peony.  Throughout the growing season I am often stopped in my tracks by a particular flower… the perfect colors, arrangement of petals, the light that hits a flower in just the right way and makes your heart sing.  But peonies have it all. No self respecting garden should be without some, no vase that graces your home should be empty of them when in season.

   Seasonality is a theme I return to frquently, and with just cause.  Nature has figured out when to produce these beautiful blooms, and thinking that we’ll outsmart Nature just won’t work!  With that in mind there are a few tricks I will share about extending the time you can enjoy them.

   There are numerous colors of peonies, whites, salmon, pink, red, maroon, and everything in between.  There are the typical bush peonies that we are familiar with, the crossed peonies or ITOH peony, and tree peonies.  Some peonies are of a single variety with an open face, others a fully double with multiple petals that are frilled and full.  It is the shrub peony that I will discuss today, with it’s very early, early, midseason, late, and very late varieties that will extend their growing season from early spring to almost summer.  

    When to plant?  Definitely try to avoid the temptation, plant catalogues, and nurseries that offer peonies to plant in spring.  The best time to plant peonies is actually in the fall, when they don’t have to compete with weeds and high temperatures for water.  By planting in the fall, you don’t have to try to keep them watered, but let nature do the work for you. The cooler temps will keep the soil moist, while the peony roots establish themselves.

     How to plant?  Definitely, plant the peony eye (the pink growing points) no deeper than two inches below the soil.  Be careful not to break off the eyes. Dig a hole large enough to accomodate the large tuberous structures that are the storage units of the peony.  Think carefully about where you will place the peony, not only from an aesthetic point, as a peony can last greater than 20 years undivided. You can mulch the area around peonies, but try to avoid putting a lot of mulch directly over the roots..  If concern for winter heaving is a worry (and in WNY, it is a concern with our freeze-thaw cycles, and intermittently reliable insulating snow cover), mulch over the peonies, but pull the mulch away from the peonies in early spring when growth is apparent.  If you do, after a time, feel the need to dig and move a peony, if well established and with multiple eyes visible, you can divide and replant your root stock, planting 3-5 eye portions for the best growth.

     When to pick peony stems for cut flowers?  With an newly established planting, it is best to pick sparingly from the plant for the first and second years, and then abundantly beginning the third year.  Doing this allows the plant to put its energy into its growth and survival. So avoid any cutting of long stems initially, but instead cutting short stems just above a leaf node is best.

     Peonies stems for cut flowers can be cut at any stage from soft marshmallow (more about that in a moment) to fully open.  When cutting a peony stem at a more immature stage, it will open fully over a day or two, allowing you to enjoy it longer.  If cut when it it is fully open, and mature, it will naturally last less time (generally 5-7 days). A lovely lasting arrangement of peonies is one that mimics nature, where some flowers are in more of a bud stage, and some more open.

     What is marshmallow stage, and how can I enjoy my peonies longer?  See the photo below of Peony Coral Charm, cut in the marshmallow or soft bud stage.  If the bud feels softly squishy, just like a marshmallow, cut. If it is firm and hard, it is unlikely to open, and is immature.  The Coral Charm peony is a lovely single variety, that blows open quickly, so it is important to cut it at the marshmallow stage. 

     Prolonging your harvest of peony stems is possible with a few caveats.

If you have a refrigerator, or cooler that can maintain a temperature of 34 degrees, you can hold peony stems for about a month.  If using a refrigerator be sure to avoid placing the stems in any very cold spots (all refrigerators have them) where they are likely to freeze.  The method is to cut the stems in the marshmallow stage, then wrap in newspaper bundles of about 10 stems, covering the top and bottom, and taping your bundle.  

They can be stored horizontally without water for about a month.  When you are ready to use your peony stems, simply unwrap them, give the bottoms a sharp angled cut, place them in warm water with flower food, in a warm room, and they will open.

     A word about ants on your peonies.  Peonies do not produce ants, and ants do not harm peonies.  In spring, when peonies are producing their buds, the buds are covered with a sticky substance which ants actually “mine”.  Industrious little creature that they are. The removal of the sap likely helps the peony blossom to open. Don’t be aftaid of the ants (although, in honesty I have beeen bitten by ants), and simply brush them off.

     Enjoy growing and cutting peonies for your home.

Carrie Kling, Master Gardener

Windy Acres Horticulture, a flower farm growing Specialty Cut Flowers serving florists, events, and community CSA’s.