Once the fall sets in, I focus on all of those plants that favor a fall planting. Of course the spring flowering bulbs are routinely planted in the fall, but right now I am thinking about peonies. I have had a big love for peonies my entire gardening life. At one point early in my gardener history, I had many hundreds of them planted on my property in rows, like crops. This infatuation with peonies predates my infatuation with design. I wanted those plants, and had no idea of what to do with them beyond digging a hole and planting. I was young, working, and struggling. Every extra cent went to plants, and in the fall, to peony roots. The picture above, one of the few that I still have. Peonies are just about the easiest perennial on the planet to grow.
Peonies are ordinarily sold as bare root divisions, in the fall. A cluster of juicy roots with dried tops arrive bathed in barely moist sphagnum moss. Of particular interest-the number of eyes. Those red eyed shoots with send forth stems, come spring. A standard division-3 to 5 eyes. Double divisions are occasionally available. A peony asks for just a few things. Full sun, somewhat alkaline soil, and a planting at the proper depth. Per the drawing above from the Canadian Peony Society, the eyes should be 2 inches below ground-after they are watered in and the ground settles. They may refuse to bloom, if the are set to shallow or too deep. As long lived as peonies are, they resent transplanting. Smaller divisions transplant more readily. Larger divisions are a temptation; it will take a number of years to grow a peony division into a robustly shrubby and heavily blooming plant. Peonies are incredibly long lived perennials-perhaps the longest lived of all perennials, save asparagus. Herbaceous peonies die back to the ground, come the winter. In May their thick stems and glossy leaves are topped with an amazing variety of flowers. Post the bloom season, their strong stems and glossy leaves grace the garden with a broadleaved presence.
I cannot remember which birthday it was, but my Mom gave me a trip to the National Peony Convention in Mansfield Ohio. I was in my mid twenties. I had to have been the youngest attendee at the convention by 30 years or better. I have a distinct memory of a great worry. What if not enough people my age got interested in growing peonies? My Mom put that to rest. Could I have afforded the trip and the lodging and the meals? No. Older people who were more established or perhaps retired attended the convention. There certainly were other gardening Moms taking their kid to specialty plant meetings and exhibitions.
My love of gardening has everything to do with Julia. Along with exposure to good books, manners, and study habits, she saw to my exposure to nature, dirt, and plants. I can still remember what a happy trip this was. Rooms full of peony flowers in milk bottles, each specimen more lovely than the last.
On the table tops-the blooms submitted for exhibition. Under the tables-the rejected flowers. Perhaps there was a blemished petal, or the form wasn’t perfect. I could not imagine how it came to be that thousands of peonies from all over the country happened to be at peak bloom on the same day. I learned that once a peony bud shows color, it can be refrigerated, a plastic bag over it’s head, in the vegetable crisper. 2 days before you want the flower in bloom, bring it out of the crisper, recut the stem, and place it in deep water. Voila. The year after this show, I put 50 stems in the fridge. I had no lettuce, celery or radishes, but I had peonies for almost 6 weeks.
This was an incredible opportunity to see they flowers from many different cultivars. There were lectures about herbaceous peonies, and tree peonies. I saw my first herbaceous/tree peony cross-then an unnamed”Itoh Hybrid”. The flower was a pale yellow with dark red flares-so exotic.
My scrapbook detailing that visit is old, but still a part of my library. My peony growing days are long over. That moment in my gardening life when I had hundreds of them lined out is but a memory. I do not have anyplace to plant them now. But every fall, I long for them, just the same.
Were I to limit myself to just a few peonies, I would choose these. Moonstone. Mrs. FDR. Miss America. Kansas. Sea Shell, Red Charm, Dinner Plate. Princess Margaret, Coral Charm, Kansas. Do Tell, Krinkled White, Festiva Maxima. Doreen, Do Tell, Gay Paree, Nick Shaylor. Charlies White, Pillow Talk, and Bu-Te. Cytheria, Dinner Plate, Ludovica, and Paula Fay. The Fawn, Miss America, White Innocence, and Princess Margaret. I would want to grow White Cap, too. This is not a few peonies-this is a list from a person who has a big love for peonies. Lucky for me, I am but a short drive from the largest collection of herbaceous peonies in the US.
In the 1920′s, WE Upjohn, founder of the Upjohn Company in Kalamazoo, donated a collection of 280 varieties to the Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum at the University of Michigan. More than 90 years later, many of his original plants are still healthy and blooming. An avid collector and grower of peonies himself, he had the kindness to share that with other gardeners.
His grand daughter, Martha G Parfet, recently donated a half a million dollars to honor her grandfather, and establish the WE Upjohn Peony Garden Fund to help with the restoration and the protection of this historic peony garden.
What a treasure-a peony museum.