In celebration of Sophie's favourite flower and our Peony collection of homewares, bags and accessories, our friends at The English Garden magazine have pulled together ten fascinating facts about peonies. Learn where peonies originated, their medicinal benefits and the range of peony varieties available today and don't worry about the ants!
- Peonies have a long history in China… Peonies are native to the eastern part of China – they’re the country’s national flower and have been cultivated there since at least 1000 BC. They first made their way to Europe in the 19th century when many new varieties were bred in France by famous breeders like Monsieur Lemoine.
- …and in Great Britain. At home, the Victorian nurseryman James Kelway, founder of the renowned Kelways nursery in Somerset, developed thousands of new peonies too. In June, trains on route to Penzance from London would make a special stop so that passengers could alight and take in the sight and scents of his ‘Peony Valley’.
- There are two main kinds of peony you can grow… Despite their name, tree peonies (Paeonia suffruticosa) are really deciduous shrubs and bear huge flamboyant flowers, sometimes the size of dinner plates. They’re long-lived but benefit from having some of their oldest woody stems pruned out every year so new ones are continually produced. Herbaceous peonies (Paeonia lactiflora) die back below ground every winter, but their vibrant crimson shoots emerge anew each spring. These are the peonies that make such gorgeous cut flowers, with blowsy, silk-petalled flowers in white, shades of pink, coral and crimson.
- ... as well as the exciting ‘intersectionals’ A third group of peonies are known as ‘intersectional’ and are a hybrid between the tree and herbaceous peonies: they have the mounded shape of herbaceous peonies but produce woodier stems and larger flowers in an exciting colour range. They’re often called Itoh hybrids, after Toichi Itoh, the Japanese botanist who first successfully hybridised the two species. Sadly, Itoh died before his successful crosses flowered, so he never saw the results. A brand new intersectional peony, ‘All That Jazz’, is being launched by Primrose Hall Peonies at the Chelsea Flower Show in May this year. Apricot-peach with raspberry flecks, Primrose Hall’s owner Alec White has high hopes for it in the coveted Chelsea Plant of the Year competition.
There’s a peony for every spot in the garden… Tree peonies fare best in dappled or full shade, while herbaceous peonies love to be grown in a sunny position. Both kinds will grow in most soils as long as it is not too wet over winter. Dig in some soil-improving organic matter such as compost before planting and scatter a handful of bonemeal into the planting hole.
…but they need careful planting. Peonies are easy to grow, but planting depth is crucial. Herbaceous peonies mustn’t be planted too deeply or they can fail to flower. The crown of the plant should not be more than 5cm below the surface of the soil. Conversely, tree peonies should be planted with their graft union buried well below soil level (at least 8cm) to encourage lots of shoots from the base.
You can enjoy peony flowers for months. Peonies are known for having a fleeting season, but choose wisely and you could have peonies in flower for months. A different species, the lemon yellow flowered Paeonia mlokosewitschii (also known as ‘Molly the witch’) starts to flower in April. Of the herbaceous peonies, the widely grown, deep crimson ‘Rubra Plena’ is one of the earliest to flower in May. Later flowering varieties such as ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ will often keep going until the end of June.
They make gorgeous cut flowers. Romantic and opulent, peonies look beautiful in a vase, and they last well once cut. If you want to grow your own, bear in mind that plants need to be at least three years old if they’re to produce enough flowers to spare some stems for cutting. Cut them just as those plump, round buds are starting to open and they’ll unfurl fully in the vase. Peony specialist Claire Austin recommends ‘Coral Charm’, ‘Myrtle Gentry’ and ‘Better Times’ for a long vase life.
They’re not just for the garden. Peonies have a long history in traditional Chinese medicine, and they are still grown there commercially for their roots, which are used to treat inflammation. Our name for them stems from Paeon, physician to the gods in Greek mythology, whose name, in turn, comes from the ancient Greek for ‘healing’. Their petals are also edible – add them to a salad or crystallise them with sugar to create the prettiest cake decorations.
Don’t worry about the ants. Peony species with single flowers will attract bees and other pollinating insects so they’re a beneficial addition in a wildlife-friendly garden. But many gardeners notice they also seem to attract another less welcome form of wildlife: ants. The green outer petals that protect peony flowers while they are in bud ooze nectar. Foraging ants soon discover it and will feast on the nectar until the flower has gone over, but do no harm to the bloom or plant. There’s no need to spray, which could inadvertently harm other beneficial insects.
We hope you've enjoyed reading our peony facts. Let us know your favourite peony flower. We'd love to hear your peony insights and stories.