Harvesting peony blooms
¢ Harvest in the bud stage. Buds should be 1 inch to 1 1/2 inches in diameter. The green sepals should be separating, revealing the petal color.
¢ Harvest when the stems are at least 12 inches long, and the buds feel like marshmallows when you squeeze them.
¢ Pick during the cool part of the day and always leave a few leaves on the stem after cutting, which will prevent putting the vegetative cycle at risk.
¢ Strip leaves so they're not in the vase water; blooms should last 5 to 10 days once the buds open.
¢ Peonies in the bud stage will keep in a refrigerator for months on end.
Having peonies in the garden is a lot like keeping turtles as pets: There's a strong likelihood that both will outlive their caretakers.
Clumps of peonies have been known to surpass the century mark with very little effort. And anyone who takes a moment to inhale their sweet, heady aroma can appreciate their longevity.
Peonies are found everywhere and their popularity, no doubt, stems from their beauty, ease of care, long life and stunning potential in cut flower arrangements.
They have a long and storied history, beginning some 2,000 years ago in Europe and the Far East, where they were propagated for medicinal purposes. Peonies were believed to cool and nourish blood, alleviate gall stones, control epileptic seizures, soothe teething pain, cure bad dreams and heal jaundice. In fact, the flower is named after Paeon, the doctor of the Greek gods.
But peonies are most highly revered for their beauty. The Chinese actually refer to them as "Sho-yo," meaning "most beautiful." During the T'ang dynasty (618-906) peonies became so popular in China that they were placed under imperial protection. The best varieties of peonies garnered huge prices and were often part of dowry settlements. The Chinese have about 1,000 varieties of tree peonies and 400 varieties of herbaceous peonies.
Japanese horticulturists began experimenting with the peony in the eighth century. They created a lighter, less complicated flower head, which has remained very popular. A large majority of the world's tree peonies were derived in Japan.
In Europe, only herbaceous species of peonies existed until 1789, when a tree peony was brought over and planted in the Kew Gardens. The first yellow hybrid tree peony, named "Alice Harding," was created in Europe by French peony breeders. The English also tinkered with peonies and introduced nearly 300 varieties by the turn of the 19th century.
North American gardeners were introduced to the peony by early pioneers who brought their treasured plants from Europe and Russia.
Crystal Hege, a greenhouse specialist at Howard Pine's Garden Center, 1320 N. Third St., says peonies do well in Kansas.
"They are so easy and long-lived," she says. "The 'Karl Rosenfield' is a gorgeous, upright double-red variety, and the 'Kansas' is another fabulous red double peony. The tree peony variety 'Kinshi' is a butter-yellow, and the 'Yagumo' has purplish-red blooms. All of these types will thrive here in Lawrence and make gardeners happy."
Peonies come in two varieties: tree and herbaceous. Tree peonies grow to eye level on woody stems with few branches and are not used as cut flowers. Their stems stay alive all winter, and they tend to bloom before herbaceous peonies.
Herbaceous peonies are more common in North America and do well in a variety of soil types and climates. They produce bushy stems that are green, pink or red, and grow 2 to 4 feet high. The herbaceous peony's leaves range from broad to grass-like, and their flowers range in color from whites and creams to deep reds. The flowers are grouped into types depending on their shape: single, Japanese, anemone, semi-double, bomb and double.
The peony is a perennial with a highly productive life of 25 years or more. Once a peony is planted, it ideally would like to stay in that place for its lifetime. That is why it's crucial to start the root of the peony in fertile soil, possibly with some organic matter. Peonies like to have good drainage and be in the sunlight for at least six hours a day. They prefer a spot that is somewhat protected from heavy winds where they don't' have to compete for root space.
Peonies in containers from local nurseries can be planted now. Bare-root peonies should be planted in the autumn, between Sept. 1 and the time the ground freezes. It is important to plant healthy roots; examine them for fungal growth and cut off any rotted parts.
It is best to water a peony at its roots rather than getting the leaves and blooms wet.
Peonies can withstand dryness, but they do enjoy a reasonable amount of water, particularly when in bloom. Once your peony is planted, it will take four or five years before you begin to reap a good harvest of blooms. The first three years, just snip the buds. By the fourth year, the peony will produce anywhere from 20 to 30 flower stems for cutting. And by the fifth year, the plant should produce 36 to 50 flower stems.
In the autumn, when the leaves have turned brown and faded, cut the peony as close to the ground as possible for it to overwinter. Peonies will not produce flowers unless they have the cold winter season.
"Peonies make me think of spring, Mother's Day and my grandmother's house," Hege says. "If you have a peony that has just gotten enormous, don't be afraid to divide it in the fall. While they don't like to be uprooted, you can successfully divide a peony and scatter the wealth to friends, family or just other spots in your yard."