Let me be, says the peony

Posted: Friday, June 15, 2001

POUND RIDGE, N.Y. (AP) -- Cultivate peonies to celebrate old age, or antiquity, and steadfastness, too. In 100 years your great-great grandchildren could be enjoying their scent and beauty.

With such attributes, we wonder why the Victorians assigned ''bashfulness'' to the peony in their often surprising ''Language of Flowers.'' Imposing in size and sometimes intensely fragrant, the peony hardly seems shy.

Conservatives could adopt it as their flower, it so resists being moved from a tried-and-true original site. If transplanted it may not bloom again for years.

Whatever the symbolism, the peony surely is old, both in its historical associations and its capacity for longevity when left undisturbed.

The origin of the cultivated peony fades back thousands of years to China where it had become -- and still reigns -- as the favorite flower. Large collections are mentioned in ancient Chinese writings, one enthusiast cultivating as many as 60,000. In a 13th century voyage, Marco Polo marveled at the splendor of the gardens.

The peony had made its way to Europe long before then and was esteemed mainly as a healing plant. It got its name from the Greek physician of the gods, Paeon, who is mentioned in the Iliad stanching battle wounds. The Romans thought the peony could cure 20 different ills.

By 16th century England, one variety of peony was thought good for male illnesses and another for female.

As time went on, the peony's good looks and fragrance eclipsed the presumed medicinal values and by our day its beauty and staying power are what a gardener looks for.

There are two main kinds, the common herbaceous variety and the so-called ''tree peony'' which is rarely taller than 5 feet and so is more of a bush.

On the country acreage my son and I share we cultivate an abundance of peonies, some going back more than 50 years.

We have half dozen tree peonies, planted in the last 10 or 15 years, which are at their best in mid-May with flowers six inches and more in diameter. Most of our herbaceous ones were planted so long ago we've lost track of their origins. They bloom later in the spring and are just showing buds by the time the tree peonies are in full flower.

In planting peonies, bear in mind that their location preferably won't change in years so you should take extra care in preparing the site.

Tree peonies like either full sun or partial shade and slightly acidic, well-drained soil. Plants should be dormant when the planting is done, either in spring or fall. Experts say small plants in pots get started easier than bare root ones. You place the plant in a deep hole, with the crown four to six inches below the surface depending on the heaviness of the soil, the lighter the deeper. It's helpful to mulch them annually with rich compost.

Roots of the herbaceous peony are best planted in the fall, with special attention paid to the depth of the hole. The growing points, or eyes, of the root should be buried just below the surface so that the buds will be about one inch deep. If planted too deep, the plant may never bloom. Before the planting, the hole should be well prepared with rich topsoil and the plants fertilized annually thereafter.

Noted nurseries like White Flower Farm of Litchfield, Conn., (800-503-9624) and Wayside Gardens of Hodges, S.C., (800-845-1124) have beautiful peony offerings, but a search of the Web astonishes you by how many varieties are available from providers you may never have heard of.

For example, www.peonyworld.com greets you from Luoyang, China, where, it says, about 1,000 tree peony varieties are cultivated. The firm, Luoyang Flowers and Trees Company, offers a 10-page catalog showing 42 tree peony and 30 herbaceous peony cultivars. If you didn't know before, you learn at this site that the tree peony is China's national flower and is called ''king of flowers'' while the herbaceous one is ''queen.'' The company's phone numner is 86-379-3251320.

Wherever you may get them, some prized tree varieties are Godaishu, semidouble white; Kintei, single yellow with streaks of deeper yellow; Rankaku, double white; Yae-kazura, double pink.

Fanciers of the herbaceous cultivars generally prefer those with fully double blooms. Among notable double red ones are Burma Ruby and Chocolate Soldier; double pink, President Roosevelt and Sarah Bernhardt; double white, Kelway's Glorious.

There are a Japanese semidouble red called Mikado, a semidouble pink, Nippon Gold, and a semidouble white, Lotus Queen.

Single reds with merit include Nippon Beauty and President Lincoln; single whites, LeJour and Mildred May.

Some gardeners worry that peonies attract ants. It is a fact that they get along well together. If you want to cut blooms for indoors, hold them under a faucet first to remove any clinging ants.


EDITOR'S NOTE: George Bria retired from the AP in 1981 after 40 years that included coverage of World War II from Italy.

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