The Attraction of Peonies

by Sandy Venton, Master Gardener

I came to peonies relatively late in life. Roses and martagon lilies were my first and second passions.  The first peony I ever planted was a fern leaf peony. I had seen one in a garden on my way to elementary school. I saw it between the fence posts. I had to have it. And the year after I moved into my own house, it was the first plant I purchased.

About 10 years ago I decided that there was room for peonies in my garden. It pretty much came to fruition when I was asked to look after the Canadian Peony Society Annual Show in Winnipeg. I was hooked.

Chinese Tree Peony Hoki (Houki)

I started with herbaceous peonies, and then managed to segue into tree peonies, just because they were considered to be difficult to grow here in Winnipeg. My motto is “go big or go home” and it applies to tree peonies, David Austin roses and Lilium Nepalense crosses with oriental lilies. If it’s not difficult, it’s not worth doing. And I am really going to pay for that remark. I just know it!

Itoh Peony, mislabeled when purchased

But, I digress. When the Itoh peonies, which are a cross between a herbaceous and a tree peony first came along, they were hundreds of dollars and way out of my financial reach. However, over the years the price dropped, there were more Itoh peonies being offered, and they are now at the stage of costing around $60.00 and over. Being fiscally responsible, I waited, and then ordered a whole pile of them over the years.

Herbaceous Peony Buckeye Belle

The herbaceous peonies come in red, white, pink, rose, and all colours in between. Tree peonies came in all of those colours, as well as yellow. Toichi Itoh from Japan was the first to get a viable cross between herbaceous and tree peonies. It seemed that after his success it opened the floodgates and there were many crosses being made, which brought the yellow colour into peonies. Itoh peonies behave like herbaceous peonies: die back in the fall, and come up in the spring, as opposed to the tree peonies which don’t die back, and which don’t appreciate any pruning, other than in the spring when a person could tell if there was some dieback.

Japanese Tree Peony Renkaku

At last count, there are approximately 20 herbaceous, 21 tree and 22 Itoh peonies in my garden.  However, just because it is difficult, my friend and I have started growing tree peonies from seed. Because we can, and for no other reason. We let the bees and Mother Nature do their magic. I have 5 trees that should flower next year, as they are 4 years old, and I’ve started another 20+ just for the heck of it. What really made me cross this year is that Renkaku (Flight of Cranes), a semi-double white, managed to self-seed and a small seedling grew this year about 5 inches from the parent plant. I was ecstatic and bragged about it right up until the baby rabbit that lives next door ate it. My only hope is that the root will survive and that it will come up again next spring. Note to self: Keep your big mouth shut and don’t tempt the peony gods!

Chinese Tree Peony Kin-kaku

Herbaceous peonies come in a variety of flower forms: single, double, Japanese, anemone and bombe.  Tree peonies are either single or semi-double (Japanese) or double (Chinese). The Japanese seem to be more aristocratic in shape and form and can hold their flowers on sturdy stems, while the Chinese (Kin-kaku) are so very double and very heavy, the stem cannot support the flower. Of course, that didn’t stop me from planting both Kinkaku and Kinshi.  But you have to look hard for the flowers, as they hang in the foliage and almost disappear. But they’re worth it!

In short, I will be running out of room soon, and I will be forced to be pickier about what I purchase.  So many plants, so little room, and because of my age, so little time! Tempus fugit. Carpe diem.

Itoh Peony Garden Treasure