Some gardeners choose flowers for their landscape that specifically attract birds and other important pollinators like bees. Peonies (Paeonia officinalis) make an excellent choice for this purpose. Ants love this flower's nectar. The ants' presence, in turn, draws a variety of insect-eating songbirds. And hummingbirds favor the aroma of peonies.
Besides their use as a bird and bee attractant, people grow peonies for other reasons. In Asia peonies appear as a part of folk remedies. Traditional Chinese medicine uses bark from woody peonies for it antibacterial qualities, for example. Peony cultivation became widespread in China during the Sung Dynasty. Even to this day Luoyang, China, holds a peony festival in April celebrating this flower's beauty.
Peonies are classified into two main types: One is the woody and bush-like tree peony, and the other is a showy hybrid called garden peony. Within these two types hundreds of varieties exist, all of which draw birds into the yard. These varieties include double-flowered peonies like Elsa Sass, single-flowered peonies like Helen, and Japanese-flowered peonies like the red Mikado.
Artistic and Literary Renderings
Chinese paintings frequently illustrate peonies and birds together in one landscape. The peony is a common motif in all Chinese arts, including woodblock and porcelain work. You'll also see this flower illustrated with birds on wall hangings. The Smithsonian Institution owns a lacquered food tray decorated with two birds and a peony dating to the Sung Dynasty.
As peonies spread to other areas of the world, again artists took note. Renoir painted these petals. In Pearl S. Buck's novel "Peony," the main character, Kung Chen, suggests that a person should take time each day to enjoy the peonies and listen to birds sing. In 1882 stained glass artist John La Farge created a piece called "Peacocks and Peonies," a lovely work currently housed in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Apart from attracting birds to your landscape, peonies provide protection from the elements and some predators. Smaller hawks and sparrows take shelter in the woody peonies and may even nest in the plants.
If you want to grow peonies as part of your bird-watching garden, you need a soil pH of about 7. These are fairly hardy plants that grow best in USDA Hardiness Zones 2-8. Place your plants in early fall, giving each 3 feet of space on all sides. If you notice the number of flowers declining, divide the plant at the root.