You can’t beat the big, blowsy blossoms of the common peony, unless it’s with the silky flowers of a tree peony. And you can’t top a tree peony, unless it’s with the flowery yellows and oranges of a cross between both. These three types of peonies present a mind-boggling choice of bountiful bouquets for gardeners. Here’s what you should know about each one.
Peonies from grandma’s garden are typically the herbaceous ones that die back to the ground over the winter until their deep red noses poke through the ground come spring. These are the ones that often need cages or stakes to hold up slender stems overburdened with huge double flowers that bloom in reds, roses, whites and any number of combinations and permutations thereof. We’re warned not to plant the eyes (the buds that come up from the roots) too deeply or the plant won’t bloom. (True.) Then there’s the myth abound about ants being the key to unfolding their tightly closed buds. (They’ll open with or without the ants.) And woe to the gardener who dares to plant one in any season but fall. (Less true now that most are sold in ready-to-plant pots rather than bare-root.)
Tree peonies are Asian cousins of herbaceous ones, and they are as elegant as a Chinese watercolour. Tree peonies are slow-growing shrubs that reach as much as two metres tall and wide. Because of their woody branches, they can stand up on their own, without the aid of supports. This type produces dinner-plate sized flowers with papery thin petals in a wide range of hues that span the same spectrum as herbaceous peonies, as well as soft or deep yellows and apricots. Tree peonies typically bloom before herbaceous ones, in mid – to late spring. Their deeply notched leaves become bronzed during cool fall days. They’re pretty hardy, too, and will grow in Zone 4 given well-drained soil.
The third, and newest type of peony, is called intersectional, often labelled ‘Itoh’ after Toichi Itoh, the fellow who developed them. And oh my, they are exquisite. Itoh hybrids produce more blooms than herbaceous ones, with flowers as large as those of tree peonies. They bloom in as many colours as tree peonies, from whites and pinks to yellows and oranges. Flowering starts when herbaceous blooms start to fade, and lasts for three or four glorious weeks. More compact than tree peonies (they grow to about a metre), their stems die to the ground, but they’re sturdier than herbaceous peonies, so they require no staking.
When cutting peonies for arrangements, Joseph Delarge of eco stems florist in Toronto recommends doing the “marshmallow test”: Cut the stems when the flower buds are closed, but showing some colour, and when they feel as soft as marshmallows. Keep the flowers in a cool place away from the sun, add cut flower food to the vase and top it up with water daily. Cared for this way, your peonies should last four to six days.