While traditional peonies are among the most beautiful of plants, their short blooming season and heavy blossoms have made some gardeners wary. Now come hybrids developed by Toichi Itoh of Japan. These gorgeous plants offer good height and strong stems, plus numerous blooms in an array of luscious colors. A cross between the big-flowered tree...
IT WAS A peony rant that made me a fan of garden writer Henry Mitchell. I think it was in his book “The Essential Earthman” that The Washington Post columnist took on a reader’s lament that peonies bloomed such a scant time it was hardly worth growing them. Mitchell retorted that it’s simply a matter of taking a week or so off work and spending every daylight hour enjoying the brief but glorious flowers. Who cares how long a flower blooms if you make the most of every minute?
I love the idea of devoting yourself to peony viewing during spring bloom time. But I think Mitchell was saying something more. He was trying to shake gardeners awake to the realization that nature’s wonders are revealed to us only when we pay the closest attention. And there’s no better investment in time and attention than peonies, which have hardiness, stature and handsome leaves going for them, as well as flowers so extravagant they’ve inspired artists for centuries.
In the past, gardeners had two kinds of peonies to choose from: tree peonies, which grow huge and woody, and the daintier, herbaceous peonies. The former take up more space than most of us have, and the latter are not as showy and require mass staking to keep their blossoms from dragging in the dirt.
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The big news in peonies are hybrids known as Itoh or intersectional peonies that are a cross between the two. And like a child blessed with the best attributes of both parents, they’re an inspired cross.
Toichi Itoh of Japan was the first to have success with these hybrids decades ago, but it’s only recently they’ve become somewhat affordable and generally available in nurseries. While breeders claim the prices have come down by 75 percent in the past few years, I’ve rarely seen them costing much less than $100. I’m adding one new Itoh peony to my garden a year, starting last spring with the uniquely colored ‘Kopper Kettle.’ Here’s why the Itoh peonies are worth collecting despite their high price:
The hybrids are strong enough to support abundant flowers without staking, and small enough to slip easily into pots, beds and borders. They have handsome dissected leaves and grow vigorously into a domed shape like tree peonies. Yet they stay a reasonable 2 to 3 feet tall and wide. The flowers on Itoh peonies are as huge (up to 10 inches across), double, frilly and prolific as those of tree peonies.
And the flower colors! Scrumptious is the only word to describe the range: from watercolor pink to orange, copper and pure yellow. Some plants are sweetly fragrant, too. A single bloom is a flower arrangement all by itself. You’d expect such beauties to be prima donnas, but they’re straightforward to care for, requiring sun, regular watering and dividing every two or three years. Try to plant them in the right place the first time, because they prefer not to be moved.
But the real miracle of these hybrids is that they develop more than one bud per stem. This means you get at least a month of bloom as one flower opens after another. Each mature peony produces an astounding bounty of 30 to 50 blossoms over a single season. So it’s probably no longer necessary to miss work to enjoy your peonies, although you might still want to take Mitchell’s heartfelt advice and set time aside to marvel over such flowers.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “The New Low-Maintenance Garden.” Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.