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A Passion for Peonies

Peonies are the quintessential cottage garden flower— they have big blooms with big fragrance, and they are beautiful without being boastful.
Rows of shrubby Paeonia ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ in bloom. Peonies make excellent landscape or garden plants.
Ants don't open the buds, they sip the sugary nectar and repel other insects.
Paeonia lactiflora ‘Cherry Hill’, one of the earliest to bloom in mid-May. Introduced in 1905 by Thurlow (United States).
Paeonia lactiflora ‘Duc de Wellington’, a midseason double introduced in 1905 by Calot (United States).
Paeonia lactiflora ‘Red Goddess’ introduced in 1905 by A. M. Brand (United States).

Nothing lends a touch of romance to the garden like herbaceous peonies. In late spring, they are the rock stars of the garden, taking center stage and flaunting their sumptuous flowers. Collecting them—with all the seemingly endless variations of white, pink, peach, and crimson blossoms—can easily get out of hand. The ruffled petal arrangement of the flower is compelling as well, ranging from single to semi-double, double, anemone, and Japanese varieties. Peonies flower abundantly, demand little attention, and make spectacular bouquets. Even after the blossoms are spent, the dark green foliage keeps its sturdy shrub-like presence and looks good all summer.

From the onset in spring, the peony is quite the overachiever. Peony shoots, like alarming red missiles, rise from the ground with singular determination in April. Within a few weeks, a 3-foot-tall shrub has leafed out and is topped with marble-size buds that swell until they’re bursting at the seams with petals. Then—pop!—the yard is filled with fragrant bloom.

Ants and peonies

According to popular myth, ants open the blooms of peonies. This magical story of a mysterious insect-plant partnership is pure folklore according to Iowa State University entomologist Donald Lewis. “It is true that there is a special relationship between ants and peony buds. However, the relationship is the reverse of what the folktale claims,” Lewis says. “The peonies don’t need the ants, but the ants do take advantage of the peonies.” Peony buds have small nectar-producing glands on the scales that cover the buds. Ants sip the sugary nectar and at the same time repel other bugs from dining on the peony buds.

Plant at a Glance: Peony

Peonies offer gorgeous flowers and wonderful fragrance—and here’s the biggest plus: They are easy to grow. Plant them and forget them—until, of course, they pop into bloom. Then get your clippers ready for bouquets. Although peonies bloom just once, they look nice all season— like small green shrubs.

Where to plant: Peonies do best in full sun. Plant in USDA Zones 2–8.

When to plant: Fall is the best time to plant. You can plant them right up to the time the ground freezes.

How to plant: Soak bare roots in water for about six hours, then plant in a location with well-draining soil (not too wet). The “eyes” should be 2 inches below the soil surface.

Spacing: Allow 3–4 feet between each plant. 

Peony care: Apply fertilizer when spring foliage is about 6 inches tall. They’re heavy feeders, so try a top dressing of compost and fertilizing twice per year for established plants—once while dormant in late fall or winter and again at flowering time. Avoid high nitrogen fertilizers as they encourage lush foliage and discourage flowers. Make sure to keep fertilizers away from peony eyes to avoid damage to next season’s growth. Cut stems back to the ground in autumn after frost.

How to extend the bloom time: There are early- and later-blooming varieties. Plant some of each and enjoy flowers for several weeks.

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