Here’s how to plant and care for the national flower of China.

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IT’S NOT SURPRISING that tree peonies are the national flower of China. The magnificent flowers can be as big as dinner plates. They come in a wide variety of vibrant colors, and many are fragrant. Their unique, treelike form adds beauty and structure in the mixed border, as well.

Hardy to well below freezing, tree peonies can be amazingly long-lived. There are reports of tree peonies blooming beautifully for more than a century in China, where they are regarded as a symbol of wealth, fortune, luck, prosperity and happiness.

Of course, if you want your tree peony to live to a ripe old age, it’s important to plant and care for it properly. For starters, plant your tree peonies differently than your herbaceous peonies (the ones that die back to the ground in fall). Herbaceous peonies don’t tend to bloom if they are planted any deeper than they came out of the pot. Tree peonies, on the other hand, should be planted considerably deeper, because they’re grafted on herbaceous peony roots. The herbaceous roots are there only to give the below-ground tree peony stems time to root before the herbaceous roots die out.

Peony and Bamboo Festival

The fifth annual Peony and Bamboo Festival will be held this spring, depending on bloom time, at the Seattle Chinese Garden. For more information, check seattlechinesegarden.org.

Plant your tree peony so the graft is 4 to 6 inches below the soil surface; otherwise, the herbaceous rootstock will survive, and an endless stream of herbaceous peony suckers will grow into, and eventually take over, your tree peony. If any suckers with foliage differing from that of the tree peony appear, cut them off at ground level.

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Tree peonies resent competition. Plant them in an open, uncrowded location in morning or dappled sun, in an area with well-drained soil. Mix a half-handful of fish-bone meal and a cup of organic rose food into the planting hole. Every April afterward, work a cup of alfalfa meal mixed with rose food into the soil around the drip line to increase blooming.

Choose carefully when deciding where to plant your tree peony. Once established, they don’t like transplanting. Although you never cut a tree peony back to the ground as you do with herbaceous varieties, tree peonies take to pruning well. Cut back to a node right after the flowers fade. Pruned to between 3 and 5 feet, a tree peony will rarely need staking.