By B. Rosie Lerner
To admire a peony in full bloom is a fitting way to celebrate our full arrival into spring.
Although it is native to Asia, the peony has become a staple of Midwestern flower gardens — so much so that the Indiana Legislature in 1957 adopted the peony as the state flower. Though there have been recent efforts to replace the peony with a native species, such as the fire pink, the peony continues to hold the designation.
Peonies are hardy perennial plants that adapt easily to average garden conditions without much maintenance. There are two basic types of peonies that can be grown in the Midwest — garden (herbaceous) peonies and tree peonies. Garden peonies have thick, bushy foliage that reaches 2-4 feet in height and dies back to the ground each winter. Tree peonies are generally larger than garden peonies and produce their annual growth from woody stems. They are generally a little less winter-hardy than the garden types.
Though there is a vast array of cultivars available, most gardeners are only familiar with the large, double-flowered garden forms in white, pale pink and magenta. In addition, garden peonies are available in single-flowered, semi-double, Japanese and anemone-type blossoms. Other colors include yellow, cream and red.
Tree peonies also come in single, semi-double and double-flowered forms, and the color range extends to include several shades of red and purple. Depending on the cultivar and weather conditions, peonies will blossom as early as April or as late as June. In many years, the herbaceous peonies hit their peak bloom around Memorial Day, making them popular for gravesite plantings.
Peonies grow best in well-drained, sunny locations but can adapt to a wide range of soils. Garden peonies can be purchased as either potted plants or divisions of the tubers (underground stems). Planting depth is critical for good garden performance. The buds of the tuber should be set no deeper than 2 inches below the soil surface.
Tree peonies are propagated either by seed or by grafting a certain cultivar onto a vigorous rootstock. Seed-grown plants usually require six or more years to become mature enough to flower.
While late summer or early autumn is the recommended planting time for both types of peonies to allow the plants the opportunity to establish new root growth during the cooler, moister conditions, spring planting is possible. But be prepared to pamper the plants throughout the stressful summer with about an inch of water per week and perhaps protection from hot afternoon sun.
Double-flowered forms often get so top heavy from the weight of the blooms that they bend over the ground and sometimes break off the stem. The flower stalks can be supported by tying them to a stake, surrounding them with a wire cage, or other support.
Rosie Lerner is the Purdue Extension consumer horticulturist and a consumer of Tipmont REMC. Have a question about gardening? Use the form to send it to us. Or, questions about gardening issues may be sent to: “Ask Rosie,” Electric Consumer, P.O. Box 24517, Indianapolis, IN 46224, or ec@ElectricConsumer.org.