Friday, June 2, 2006

On the Greener Side: Ode to Peonies

Commentary by Dana Dugan


Dana Dugan

Peonies are among the most luscious of flowers. Like roses, they evoke nostalgia and sense of place and flora at it's most abundant.

For me they are the flowers of New England, particularly of the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts. In the old towns such as Lenox, Stockbridge and Pittsfield they flourish in the wet shady gardens of wonderful old homes. They grow best in cooler climates, and are in fact a species whose natural habitat is Asia.

The long-lived, perennial flowers produce large single, semi-double, double, Japanese, and anemone flowers in the spring. They come in a variety of rich colors including black, coral, cream, crimson, pink, purple, rose, scarlet, white, and yellow. The most common variety grown are garden peonies (Paeonia valbiflora or Paeonia officinalis) and tree peonies (Paeonia suffruticosa).

I have found that the peonies at my home in Hailey have done best in a protected half shade garden with little extra fertilizing. Though it's important to use healthy, organic compost upon planting, they rarely need disturbing until the flowers grow small and the stems crowded. Then they may be separated as needed. Beside the stunning blooms and aroma, peonies rapid growth and continued flowering over a number of years makes them one of the gems of a perennial garden.

Most of us can't jaunt off to Yuzhong County in northwest China where two barren mountains are covered in peonies. We can perhaps head over to Boise, where the Idaho Botanical Garden's Peony Garden has 21 varieties of hybrid peonies growing in similar conditions.

The Peony Garden was planted in 1992 as a memorial to the parents of one of the Garden's most ardent supporters Margaret Tillotson. It's maintained by the Merry Tillers Garden Club and is at its peak right now.

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