Leon Pesnell is a fan of the peony. Anyone who knows Pesnell would agree that to say that is like pronouncing that the sky is blue or the ocean is vast.
His garden in rural Eudora is brimming with a huge variety of the species including early, mid and late bloomers; double, single, anemone to semi-double blossoms; in every hue of each shade that the peony dons.
He is a board member and webmaster of the Heartland Peony Society. He has buckets of grafted plants that he is babying in hopes of a new successful bounty.
From dwarf peonies to fern-leafed peonies, Pesnell is an avid admirer of them all.
"I think I was seduced into it by the first seven peonies that I had," he says. "I went online to a forum and learned about the Heartland Peony Society back in 1999. After that I was hooked."
He estimates that he has around 700 total plants with 129 cultivars of tree peonies and 100 species of herbaceous. He has a bed that is almost entirely tree peonies imported from Japan, a bed of herbaceous and tree peonies together and a smattering of other beds.
As Pesnell walks among his hundreds of peony plants, he'll point to a species and oftentimes he'll immediately know the name. Other times, there is a slight pause while he is clearly filing though the Rolodex in the recesses of his mind to conjure up names anywhere from "Alice in Wonderland" to "Zeus," the entire alphabet is represented.
"This is a late year for peonies to bloom," Pesnell states. "It's a very unusual year for peonies. Generally the blooms end May 25, and Memorial Day is synonymous with peonies, but not this year."
The bursting of the peonies has been quite a show this season, a slightly delayed performance because of the cooler-than-normal temperatures. It is those low temperatures that are what makes this peony season a feast for the eyes. Peonies thrive in these cool conditions and should bedazzle us with a longer blooming period because of it.
There is nothing quite as spectacular as the peony cut and brought indoors. The peony is hands-down one of the most glorious blooms to bring inside and place in a vase but oftentimes those blooms bring in the ants.
Why are there so many ants scurrying about all over some peony buds? Nectar. There is a slight hint of nectar on some types of peonies that attracts the ants, but the relationship is beneficial. Those ants help loosen up the buds and aid in the bloom emerging. Please don't panic or worry and, for goodness sake, don't spray your peony blooms. These are not new armies of ants - they are the same ants that would be in your garden regardless, and once the buds have opened the ants move on.
To cut the blooms, here are some tips for the best results:
¢ Harvest in their bud stage, the buds should be 1 to 1 3/4 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 are not in the vase water, and the blooms should last 5 to 10 days once the buds open.
¢ Peonies can even be cut when they are in a tight bud form then stored in the refrigerator for up to a month. Later bring them out, place them in warm water, and you've extended your peony season!
Sowing the plants
The peony is a perennial with a highly productive life of 25 years or more. Once a peony is planted it would ideally like to stay in that place for its lifetime, which can be a very long time. That is why it is 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. They prefer a spot that is somewhat protected from heavy winds and a place where they do not have to compete for root space. Really though this is not a fussy plant, they rarely if ever need to be fertilized.
Peonies should be planted in the autumn between Sept. 1 and the time that the ground freezes.
"They are not that bad as far as transplanting goes. Really the key is to time it correctly," Pesnell advises. "You must plant them in the fall; it sets them back quite a bit to plant them in the spring. Their roots are established in the fall."
It is important to plant healthy roots. Examine your roots 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. The peony can withstand dryness without succumbing, but they do enjoy a reasonable amount of water, particularly when they are in bloom.
Once your peony is planted it will take four to five years before you begin to reap a good harvest of blooms. During 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 that peony 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.
The beauty of the peony is addictive, the scent intoxicating and the no-fuss personality of the plant is priceless. Just ask Pesnell, who clearly caught the bug.