Green scene

A great season for peonies, the flowers of the gods


Buying a house includes so much more than the structure itself, especially if a yard is included. Large trees anchor a property, while other plants are more of a suggestion.

When we bought our home many years ago, there were several clumps of unidentified plants whose characteristics I needed to understand.

One clump, stuck in a shady spot way out of the way, just put out leaves each spring and left it at that. Eventually, they were identified as peonies.

I was never clear why they did not bloom in the old location — maybe not enough sun or buried too deeply — but one fall, I got around to moving them to the front border, and the now yearly wait for them blooming is definitely worth it. This year they were in full bloom for the Shavuot holiday in early June, and three cut blossoms perfumed the entire dining room.

All peonies are members of the genus Paeonia and are the only members of the family paeoniaceae. This family is part of the order saxifragales, which makes peonies a distant cousin to coral bells, astilbes and tiarellas.
There are about 33 known species in all, the majority being herbaceous. The balance? A woody, shrub form. They are native to cold/temperate parts of Asia, Europe and Western North America.

The name derives from the Greek paeon, physician of the gods, later known to us as Apollo. Despite being used in traditional medicines in a variety of cultures, the entire plant is actually considered poisonous.

And yes, there is a society — the American Peony Society at dedicated to the promotion of cultivated peonies and its improvement as a garden plant. Formed in 1903, its first task was to standardize the naming of various cultivars, and since 1974 the society has served as the International Cultivar Registration Authority.

Despite the fact peonies may have had as few as five petals, it is now a large and densely petalled flower. At present, the society categorizes herbaceous peonies into five classes in addition to “single,” which represents the basic structure. The others are Japanese, anemone, bomb, semi-double and double.

Like many flowers, peonies have both male and female reproductive structures on the same flower — the male structures are the stamens and the female are the pistils. The species peony is self-fertile, but will cross with other nearby peony plants with ease.

The various different peony flower categories are the result of transformations of some the stamens into petal-like structures. In the Japanese classification, the stamens are still recognizable although hugely increased in size and number, usually yellow and somewhat lumpy.

As these staminodes transform further into petal-like structures they are called anemones with a “center ball of contrasting size resting on a flat or cupped saucer-shape,” formed by the outer petals called the guard petals.

The bomb category sees a complete transformation of the stamens into petals with a center snowball overshadowing the outer petals.

The remaining forms are the double and the semi-double. A double essentially is a complete flower within a flower. Finally, if stamens are visible in the opened double flower, it becomes a semi-double.

To see examples of each of these types next spring, visit the Peony Walk at the New York Botanical Garden.
For anyone with peony seeds who wants to try their hand at growing them, the seeds are doubly dormant and need to undergo two chilling periods separated by a warm period. After the first chilling, the seed puts out roots only, and stems and leaves appear following the second chilling.

In addition to the herbaceous form, there is also a tree peony (Paeonia suffruticosa) which can reach a height of 3 to 5 feet. Known as the “King of Flowers” in the Tang Dynasty between A.D. 618 and 906, it was the symbol of happiness, richness and prosperity.

By the Song Dynasty in A.D. 960, there were more than 200 described cultivars. In 1798, the first tree peony was introduced into Europe and planted in England’s Kew Gardens.

Based on genetic studies, the tree peony seems to be a natural hybrid arising from just a few peony species. Paeonia cathayana seems to be the maternal parent with just a small number of peony species acting as the paternal parent.

Finally there are the Itoh peonies, also called intersectional peonies, that were created in 1948 by Toichi Itoh using pollen from the tree peony “Alice Harding” to fertilize the herbaceous Paeonia lactiflora “Katoden.”

These plants flower longer on stronger stems than the typical herbaceous plants, and are probably the future of cultivated peonies.

While the Itoh cultivars are a bit pricey, I think one is in my future.