Peonies: June beauty queens

Peonies are one of the most beautiful and venerated garden plants. With their massive blooms in shades of red, pink and white and yellow they are the queens of the June garden. And best of all, given fertile soil, good air circulation and adequate sunlight, peonies are not only easy to grow but they are also extremely long-lived.
Every June thousands of visitors make a point of visiting the beautiful peony collection at Hildene (in Manchester, Vt.). And, as a testament to their incredible longevity, we to note that these are the very same peonies that were first planted over a hundred years ago at Hildene!
Although early fall is the best time to plant peonies, June is when we can visit gardens and see which ones we really like and then plan ahead for later planting.
Across the centuries: a passion for peonies
The people of China first cultivated peonies as a flavoring for food over 2,000 years ago. Then, during the elegant Tang dynasty (618-907) they began experimenting with crossing different species to obtain beautiful blooms. This was the genesis of what has become a worldwide passion for glamorous peony flowers.
Next the people of Japan also started growing peonies for their flowers. And finally, in the 18th century, peony cultivation migrated to both England and France.
Peonies are worldwide citizens
In the wild there are actually over 30 different species of peonies — all members of the genus Paeonia and thus genetically related — that are native to the cold and temperate regions in Asia, Europe and western North America. The majority are herbaceous perennials (meaning they will die back to the ground each winter but re-sprout every spring), but a few have woody stems (enabling them to remain above ground throughout the year).
This vast genetic pool gave plant hybridizers a wealth of interesting material from which they have developed all the beautiful cultivated varieties — or cultivars — now available.
Today a vast array of cultivars for gardeners everywhere
Most peonies are herbaceous, with the plants dying back to the ground each winter. Single peonies, such as Krinkled White have one or two whorls of broad, over-lapping petals surrounding a central mass of yellow stamens. These are the sophisticates of the peony world.
Semi-double peonies, like Coral Charm and Coral Sunset, have three or four whorls of petals but the central mass of stamens is still easily visible. Double peonies, such as the immensely popular Sarah Bernhardt, have sumptuous spherical flowers that are completely filled with numerous overlapping petals. Some blooms have more than a hundred petals!
Coral Sunset peony has semi-double flowers with four whorls of petals around the central stamens. Photo by Dick Conrad
Japanese or Anemone-form peonies — like Bowl of Beauty — have one or more rows of large outer petals surrounding a mass of miniature petals called petaloids.
A hundred years ago the American Peony Society began awarding the society’s Gold Medal to exceptional peony cultivars, a practice that continues annually to this day.
Magnificent Itoh peonies — a gardener’s dream come true
Tree peonies, with their spectacular flowers and beautiful colors are coveted by gardeners everywhere. But typically the above-ground stems (where most of the buds that make next year’s flowers are produced) will not survive our Vermont winters. So Vermonters will be especially interested to hear about Itoh hybrid peonies — a cross between herbaceous peonies and tree peonies that combine the best features of each.
Itoh peonies have enormous flowers up to eight inches across, with undulating petals encircling a froth of yellow stamens. The original Itoh cultivars were yellow, but today they come in a wide range of beautiful colors including coral, red, pink and white, as well as their signature buttery yellow.
Just as the herbaceous peonies are winding down, the Itoh hybrid peonies burst into bloom, thus extending the peony season by three more wonderful weeks. The first flowers develop from terminal buds at the ends of the stems, and then just as these finish, the side buds begin to bloom. In this way a single established Itoh peony plant can produce three-dozen or more flowers.
Itoh peonies also have finely divided leaves which grow in an elegant mounded shape so, even after they have finished flowering, the plants themselves continue to shine at the front of the border.
The amazing story of the Itoh hybrid peonies
Itoh peonies began as a plant hybridizer’s dream — how to cross tree peonies with herbaceous peonies and produce a new kind of plant that offers the best features of both parents. This had been tried without success over many years and in several countries. One difficulty was because the bloom times for the two types of peony are several weeks apart, making cross-fertilization difficult. Also, although tree and herbaceous peonies are both members of the huge genus Paeonia, genetically they are actually not that closely related, contributing to the problem of creating a cross that would produce viable progeny.
Dr. Toichi Itoh — a Japanese botanist quietly working in the aftermath of the destruction of World War II — was totally consumed with this monumental hybridization challenge. Finally in 1948 his dream came true. After thousands of attempts of meticulously dusting tree peony pollen onto herbaceous peony pistils (the tube that guides pollen onto the ovaries) a few seeds actually germinated. Then tragically in 1956, before his successful crosses had matured enough to produce their first flowers, Dr. Itoh passed away. So it fell to his family to nurture those very special plants, finally bringing them to flower in 1964.
Eventually an American botanist, Louis Smirnow, received permission from Dr. Itoh’s widow to bring a few plants with huge buttery yellow flowers to the United States, naming them “Itoh hybrids.” After this success, peony breeders everywhere were motivated to replicate Dr. Itoh’s detailed techniques, and today Itoh hybrids come in an array of luscious colors. Finally in 1996 the American Peony Society gave its coveted Gold Medal Award to Itoh hybrid Garden Treasure and in 2006 to Bartzella.
A personal story
In the summer of 2000, when Itoh hybrids were barely known to the gardening public, I was visiting the renowned peony grower Bill Countryman in Northfield. Over the years he had developed a fabulous collection of peonies, including every American Peony Society Gold Medal winner to date. And now he was adding Itoh hybrids to his collection. As he showed me his Itoh Hybrids he also recounted the incredible story of how they came to be. I was completely smitten and decided to purchase a single root of the cultivar Garden Treasure — for the astronomical price of $125! My husband Dick was absolutely flabbergasted that I would even consider spending that much money for a single root.
I chose a sunny spot in my garden, enriched the soil with plenty of compost and carefully planted my new extravagance. And now, every year toward the end of June, just as the flowers of the herbaceous peonies are fading, both Dick and I eagerly await the moment when our Garden Treasure starts to bloom. It is by far the most beautiful plant in our entire garden, and it has more than lived up to all the promises Bill made to me all those years ago.
Today the price for Itoh hybrid roots has dropped significantly. So, as a long-term investment, you too might want to consider planting one or two in your garden.
Judith Irven and her husband, Dick Conrad, live in Goshen where together they nurture a large garden. Judith is a landscape designer and Vermont Certified Horticulturist. She also teaches Sustainable Home Landscaping for the Vermont Master Gardener program. She writes about her Vermont gardening life at www.northcountryreflections.com. You can reach her at [email protected].

Share this story:

More News
US Probation Office Uncategorized

US Probation Office Request for Proposals

US Probation Office 2×1.5 062024 RFP

Middlebury American Legion Uncategorized

Middlebury American Legion Annual Meeting

Middlebury American Legion 062024 1×1.5 Annual Meeting

Sports Uncategorized

MAV girls’ lax nets two triumphs

The Mount Abraham-Vergennes cooperative girls’ lacrosse team moved over .500 with a pair o … (read more)

Share this story: