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Peonies, The Sequel

The following is a regular column that addresses basic issues facing the ever-inquisitive back- and front-yard toiler, proffered by someone who knows best: one of the master gardeners from the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Brian Cruey.

Last time I checked in, I was going on and on about peonies. If you were bored by that article, I’ve got some bad news: I need to talk more about peonies. Tree peonies, to be exact. Never heard of them? Get ready to have your mind blown.

Unlike herbaceous peonies (whose leaves and stems die down at the end of the growing season to the soil level), tree peonies don’t die back every year. Instead, they grow as a woody shrub. Just like other woody shrubs, the branches of tree peonies don’t get cut back at the end of the season and last through the winter. Most tree peonies will bloom in early to mid May, a bit earlier than their herbaceous cousins, which for the most part, get started in early June. 

Tree peonies get a bad reputation; many people label them “hard to grow.” In reality, they are really just “slow to grow” and quite hardy, growing under similar conditions to that of herbaceous peonies: neutral, organic rich soil that is well drained and located in a sunny to partly sunny area of the yard. Given time and the right conditions, most will grow to a height of four feet or higher, with equal or greater width. Though their stems are made to last the cold winter months, that doesn’t mean that they are safe from what the snow brings — broken limbs or damage caused by voles. It’s a good idea to wrap the trees in burlap before the snow falls to give them an added layer of protection.

What tree peonies lack in their ability to grow quickly, they more than make up for in their annual flower show. Sure, herbaceous peonies are impressive enough and already are one of the most beautiful blooms in the garden. But tree peonies just have a little more oomph to them. They are peonies on steroids, with huge blooms and lots of them. Mature plants can have over a hundred flowers on them with blooms that can reach diameters of 12 inches and have a depth of 4 to 5 inches. If that isn’t enough, their fragrant scent will fill the air when mature plants are in full bloom and their perfume can rival that of any rose.

Not convinced? Fortunately for us folks living in the RI region, we have two incredible resources when it comes to tree peonies. For the perfect example of how tree peonies can perform in the landscape, be sure to check out Naumkeag in Stockbridge. Naumkeag (a property under the stewardship of the The Trustees of Reservations and open to the public daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.) is not only an historic home and museum, but a spectacular garden in the process of receiving a multi-million-dollar restoration. Though the gardens surrounding the home are probably best known for their iconic “Blue Steps” set into the hillside, they also boast a sprawling terrace filled with nothing but mature tree peonies, all covered in blooms this time of year. I never miss this garden “performance” and you shouldn’t either.

Cricket Hill Gardens in Thomaston, CT are nothing short of experts on all things peony. Not only do they specialize in growing tree peonies (and herbaceous peonies as well) but they also sell and propagate them. They have a peony festival that goes from now through June 21 that’s worth the visit. If you can’t get there, they have an online shop and catalog and are always happy to help via phone.

If you do decide to purchase a tree peony, be ready for some sticker shock. Most tree peonies start in the $80 range and go up from there.  But trust me, it’s well worth the investment and you’ll probably grow to love this plant more than any other in the garden.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 05/26/15 at 08:28 PM • Permalink