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Peonies…Old Favorites and a New Twist

MOM! There are ants all over these flowers!  Sound familiar?  Ants are attracted to the sticky sap that exists on the buds of peonies.  However, with all the other fantastic attributes of this old-world perennial, that is a negligible and easily resolved drawback.  The plethora of flower colors, habits and forms and the variety of plant structures are the reasons these plants are so popular with amateurs, professionals, breeders and florists.  Paeonia officinalis was the original ancient European peony.  That combined with Paenoia lactiflora, the Chinese peony, are the two species responsible for most of our selections available today.   In the middle of the 18th century, the white variety (P. albiflora) arrived from Siberia, and that added white to the genetic pool, allowing for even more colors and hybrids.  Breeders have developed varieties ranging from the purest white to the deepest red.  More recently, breeders have developed yellow blooming plants. The last eight to ten  years have seen hybridization of the yellow cultivars, so you can find several varieties of yellow and even yellow/pink blends. 

Tree peonies are native to the Orient and have been prized since the 6th century.  Revered in Japan, tree peonies can be found that are 300 years old.  Examples exist in ancient monasteries and temple gardens, and are often depicted on works of art.  These massive flowers are often larger than a person’s head, yet are elegant, and evoke a sense textured silk. In fact, the whole plant is quite graceful even when not in bloom.  Tree peonies are not trees at all, but have woody stems that are pleasing to the eye, especially in winter, with a dusting of snow.  Tree peonies are no more difficult to grow in your garden than regular peonies.
But recently a new lovechild peony was created.  The Itoh peony is named for its breeder and is also known as an intersectional hybrid. The name doesn’t matter though – just the fact that these peonies are fantastic. Combining the best qualities of both parents (the tree peony and the regular perennial peony) these new hybrids have stronger stems, bigger flowers and more blooms but the real gift is the very long bloom time.  Itohs will bloom for up to a month once they are established.  In the second half of the 20th century, these plants sold for thousands of dollars.  But recent breeding breakthroughs have allowed the price to fall into the range (less than $50) where many more gardeners can enjoy them.

I have a clear memory of round fleshy white and pink buds arranged in a chipped porcelain antique vase on the dining room table…with ants crawling all over them.  Mom didn’t seem to mind, her philosophy being that when you bring nature inside, you bring the bad with the good.  Live and let live, and all that. I have since learned that the ants do no harm and are not that difficult to get rid of if you don’t want them in your house.  After you cut them, turn them upside down and give them a few gentle shakes.  This will help dislodge most of them.  These ants aren’t harming the flowers at all.

Peonies represent good fortune, love and prosperity, and are considered to be the essence of the Yin (female) element of nature.  Their strength, grace, beauty and variety are a testament to this.  If you choose to grow herbaceous, tree or Itoh peonies, you will surely be satisfied with their performance.  Their long, hardy lives will practically guarantee that you will have blooms to enjoy for years to come.  And never mind the ants.