Peonies are a hardy plant well-known for large fragrant blossoms and dark green foliage. They are a mainstay of the perennial garden, not only because of their beauty but because they are resistant to disease and insect infestation, tolerate winters well and live for decades. They can live to age 50 and beyond with minimal care. Their blossoms might look delicate, but in fact this plant is far from fragile.
Botanical Name and Background
Peonies originated in the East more than 2,500 years ago. Gardeners grew these lush plants in Japan, China and Siberia, according to Michael N. Dana and B. Rosie Lerner of Purdue University. Paeonia lactiflor is the botanical name for the herbaceous peony; there is also a peony tree with the botanical name Paeonia suffruticosa. Peonies were brought to Europe and the United States in the early 1800s.
Herbaceous peonies are what most people are familiar with. They grow to be 2 to 4 feet tall. (The trees grow 4 to 6 feet tall.) Their blossoms are large, up to 6 inches wide. The blossoms come in five different types: single, Japanese, anemone, semi-double and double. They come in a variety of colors, including pink, red or white.
Soil preparation is the key to successfully planting peonies. Some horticulturalists recommend preparing the soil in the spring and allowing it to settle until fall, which is when peonies should be planted. Dig 1 to 3 feet deep and mix in organic material such as manure or peat. Plant the peonies so the uppermost "eyes," or small, pink bullet-shaped nodes, are 1 to 2 inches below the soil. Water thoroughly. Peonies must be planted in a sunny location if they are to produce flowers--they need six to eight hours of sunshine daily.
In the spring, fertilize the peonies with a balance fertilizer, such as 10-10-10 (equal parts nitrogen, potassium and potash). Water well to help the plant absorb the fertilizer. Mulch the plant to cut down on weeds, and be sure to mulch in late fall, at least for the peony's first few winters. Don't cut down the foliage until late September or October; the plant needs its greenery in order to make food.
If the peony patch is starting to look too crowded, it's time to divide the plants. Peonies can be divided from early September until December. Do it when the ground is neither too wet nor too dry. Measure about 6 inches out and use a spade to dig about 2 feet down all around the plant. Wash the roots off with a hose before dividing. On the upper part of the roots you will see the eyes (small, pink bullet-shaped nodes); this is where to divide the plants. Each section needs to have three to five eyes and two or three mature roots. Water the plants well and mulch them after transplanting.