Growing Tree Peonies Is Different

For 50 years, I have grown tree peonies. I remember my first glimpse of them in the catalog of an old British firm, Kelway & Co.

Even those little prints seemed to be the most beautiful flowers I had ever seen—blooms of exquisite form and delicate texture, heavy buds, and dark foliage like Jorms in Japanese bronze.

Growing Lovely Tree PeoniesPin

After some hunting, I found a few tree peonies offered in this country.

They were a high price for those days and my youthful salary. But I bought two.

My surrender was complete when one flowered into a large flat, semidouble bloom of translucent coral, color is never seen in herbaceous peonies.

Since then, I have become, pretty literally, the slave of the peony.

About 25 years ago, when I acquired a bit of land, I imported 60 plants from Japan and set them out in a long block.

The ground was carefully drained and had manure worked in below the planting level.

A cheaply built arbor of poles and slats provided light shade. Unfortunately, the flimsy arbor has long since perished, and the plants have received no further care except weeding.

For a week or two every May, they are still, and among the thousands of peonies of all varieties around them, the most beautiful sight of the year.

Of course, such a block of bloom is not for everybody. But in the average garden, even one tree peony, given space to show its form and style, will add distinction to its whole neighborhood.

Unfortunately, this lovely plant is one of the rarest of all flowers in our gardens.

And, it is in the hope of inducing you to try at least one tree peony I am writing now.

Two Rules Of Planting Tree Peonies

Planting tree peonies is a different job from setting out most perennials.

The average perennial will need attention in 3 years, more or less. But the peony is planted for all time, or at least for all your time.

Two brief rules will almost guarantee success. Here are the following:

  • The first is to dig the ground deeply
  • The second is to set the crowns at the right depth below the soil’s surface.

I will go into more detail.

The perfect month to plant tree peonies is September.

They can, I suppose, be set a little earlier, and October is almost equally satisfactory.

I have set them successfully as late as November, provided frost is not yet in the ground.

But ideally, the plant should be given time to comfortably settle before winter comes.

It is then more or less established by the following spring and may even put forth a little bloom for you then.

Spring planting is never so successful. However, since the supply of tree peonies is never very great, spring is the best time to order them, with the request that they are shipped for September planting.

For their first winter, some cover—leaves, straw, cornstalks, ever green branches—should be laid on the tree peony plants, and it need not be deep.

After the plants have had a summer’s growth in their new locations, you will have no further danger from heaving.

Ideal Location To Set Peonies

Now, where to set peonies?

Not where old clumps have been growing. A peony does something to the soil where it lives to make it inhospitable to other peonies.

Set the plants 3′ to 5′ feet apart from each way. Remember that the peony’s neighbors, too, will grow with the years.

If you prepare a rich spot near trees, especially near elms, you will find that in a short time, the peony bed is a mat of tree roots that take both food and moisture from the soil at the time peonies need them most.

And, to quote one well-known peony grower: “If you are so unlucky or so foolish as to have Carolina popular on your land, 50′ feet are too near to plant a peony.”

Proper Soil Conditions

Peonies grow in good garden soil, provided it is not too acid.

In this rare case, lime may be mixed into the soil. Therefore, waterlogged locations and spots where water is known to lodge throughout the winter are best avoided.

Very hot, dry positions are also undesirable. During the first summer, thorough watering once a week is good.

The plants will grow most vigorously in full sunlight, but they also do well in partial shade.

A bit of shade lengthens the life and delicate tints of many blooms, which would droop and fade in full sunlight.

As to the tree peony’s effect in the garden, I like to quote William Gratwick of Pavilion, New York, one of our great peony growers and a landscape architect and sculptor as well:

“A tree peony is usually the most notable plant in a garden and may well be given the place of honor.

A single specimen can hold the focal point in an intimate design.

Two look well as accents on each side of steps or the entrance path, while four can be used in a balanced design at the corners of a flagged area reflected in a pool.

Or a group of tree peonies is perfectly adapted as a middle ground for the flower border with lilacs in full bloom in the background.”

Proper Planting Method

When it comes to actual planting, do the following:

  • Provide about 2’ feet of good nourishing soil into which the roots can extend as the years go by.
  • It will not harm to add manure, even if the soil is good sandy or clay loam. But the roots must never come into contact with the manure.
  • It is well to dig deep enough to place about 6” inches of manure in the bottom of the hole, then 2” or 3” inches of loose sweet soil.
  • Set the plant in the hole, filling the surface with garden soil. Suppose you can add a little leaf mold and bone meal, so much the better.
  • Some phosphate, potash, and lime can be used after the first year but do not add much nitrogen.

Plenty of humus is always good. But no later tinkering at the surface will make up for careless planting in the beginning.

Remember always that the peony likes to go downstairs for its dinner!

Rules For Setting Tree Peonies

The usual rule for setting tree peonies is to place the point of junction of the graft 2” or 3” inches below the soil surface.

One of our most successful propagators of tree peonies, Harold Wolfe of Belleville, Illinois, urgently advocates a much deeper setting—6” to 8” inches down for the graft junction.

This allows the peony to put roots from its own stem and gives it a stronger hold on life.

In a few years, you then have a plant with every stem supplied with its own roots and can, if you wish, easily lift and divide it.

Various Difficulties Of Growing Tree Peonies

What about the “difficulties” of growing tree peonies, which we hear about so much?

Believe me. They are not many. It must be admitted that a single branch will occasionally die without warning from the tip to the ground.

Other ailments are few. You may escape them altogether.

Winter spraying with lime sulphur or oil has been recommended for a possible San Jose scale.

The small carpenter-bee sometimes enters where a stem has been broken off and eats out the center of the stem down to the ground.

Its mischief can be prevented by sealing off the cut stem with paste or wax.

Mr. Wolfe delightfully suggests a carpet tack! And even for the “wilt” described above, I have grown hopeful.

An extremely successful amateur “peonist” friend of mine suggests the use of fermate:

“Two or three years ago, I noticed that the small new shoots turned brown and shriveled within a bush.

Since I have sprayed inside the bush with fermate, wilting doesn’t occur. More shoots, and therefore many more flowers develop.

I spray early and often as the new shoots are forming. I’m trying this myself now and have high hopes of no more “wilt.”

Magnificent Tree Peony Collections

There have been a few magnificent tree peony collections in the country, notably the following:

  • Swarthmore College
  • Pennsylvania and Highland Park
  • Rochester, New York

But aside from specialists, I see signs of awakening interest in this plant everywhere about me.

I receive constant requests for information about tree peony seeds. Lately, there have been frequent demands for Paeonia lutea, the wild yellow species, by gardeners interested in crossing it with our present Japanese tree peonies.

I can think of no more exciting field for the young hybridist.

What are the best tree peonies which are easily obtainable now?

It is my deep conviction that in purchasing practically any named tree peony, you are getting a perpetual treasure.

41487 by A. P. Saunders