Peonies pile on the pleasure of early summer

What a gladsome thing a peony is!  Peonies are the ‘over-the-tops’ of late spring and early summer from the buxom ‘officinalis’ beauties so often seen in cottage gardens to the glamorous ‘suffruticosa’ tree peonies with their sumptuous blooms.


About 12 years ago, I fell for one of these in a garden-centre; it’s called Handaijin (very dully translated as ‘Minister of Flowers’  – hang on, that’s quite a good idea for the next time we have a Cabinet Reshuffle”…) , it is now six feet tall, with the most beautiful grey/pink leaves preceding lots of frankly unbelievable dinner-plate sized flowers of bright reddish-purple.  (I see it is listed in the peonygarden catalogue as ‘gigantic’!).

Oh, I know they have two massive downsides – the flowers barely last 10 days and they are ruined by the rain.  They also look fairly bonkers among the calmer flowers of my town garden.  But I love their outrageous chutzpah, and it’s a very special moment here, usually right at the end of April, when the first fat bud has a tiny window of purple on it.

P Handaijin
P Handaijin

I tend not to grow peonies in my Normandy garden – my teaching job means that I am very rarely there except for a few days at the end of May and then not at all in June – the two glory months for this genus.  I do have one very lovely tree peony there (though I have lost its name) which has masses of white flowers with darker splashes in the middle (like ‘Joseph Rock’) but I tend to arrive just as the last flower is dropping its petals and the bush is covered in its curious clown-cockade seed pods.  I’m sure it was appreciated by the storks who, very surprisingly, spend their summers on top of a telegraph pole in the garden!

It is easy to make the mistake of planting herbaceous peonies too deeply – take it from me, you get lots of leaves but no flowers – but tree peonies are okay a bit deeper, and the bigger-flowered ones need plenty of discreet support for their overloaded branches. What you CAN do with peonies is move them…..yes, I know it’s traditional wisdom that you can’t, but as long as you do it carefully, and never into soggy soil, they will settle into a new home quite happily.
There will be plenty of peonies at Chelsea Flower Show – there always are.  I remember seeing a wonderful garden there by Luciano Guibellei a few years ago for Laurent-Perrier, with a sea of the lovely blood-red lactiflora variety ‘Buckeye Belle’ floating ethereally among waves of (I think) Stipa tenuissima – fleeting, totally impractical, but magical.  Kelways, one of the doyens of peony-growing, sell this gorgeous thing, along with hundreds of others, of course.

4-tree-peony-lutea-ludlowiiI am very proud of my eight-foot tree peony Lutea ludlowii because I grew it from a seed many years ago.

Its very pretty lemon-yellow flowers are small and gone in the blink of an eye but the bright green serrated leaves are a joy in themselves and………..well…did I mention that I grew it from a seed?………. Laura is bound to have tales of much greater glory in this area……


Elaine is right. Peony flowers are gorgeous beyond compare but fleeting and ephemeral and if space is at a premium in your garden you may not have room for some of

the statuesque beauties she has been describing.
The trick in these cases is to scale down and find a variety that has attributes beside it’s one moment of flowering glory.
My desert island peony is P. cambessedesii  (yes I know,completely unpronounceable, but it helps when you know that it was named after Jaques Cambessedes, the French botanist who discovered it in the limestone cliffs on the island of Majorca).
Every stage of this pint sized peony’s life cycle is delectable.

Very early in the year the noses of its young stems push through the ground suffused with pink or red, opening to pretty glaucous palmate leave with red veins and purple undersides. One the first peonies to flower in spring the simple but impossibly pretty pink petals have wavy edges set off by red stamens.

P Lutea ludlowii
P Lutea ludlowii

But for me the crowning glory of this plant comes later in the year, when it’s seed pods split to reveal jewel like red and black seeds. Only the black seeds are fertile, the red ones are there to attract the attention of birds so they will pick out the seeds and disperse them.
And yes Elaine of course I grow this plant from seed …. and actually have a little batch of them ready for new homes.

In flower
In flower

I think your warm chalky garden would be perfect for this little gem, and Caroline, before you present me with a note from matron to say that East Lothian is too far north for you to give it a go, I should point out that

And its glorious seed pod
And its glorious seed pod

Kevock nursery in Edinburgh (not 10 miles from where you live and a proper family based business who grow all their plants themselves) stock it in their catalogue. I will bring you each a plant when we get together later this month for our annual pilgrimage to Chelsea.


Busted! Ok I look forward to it (although secretly I’m keeping matron’s note in my back pocket. Kevock – although in an excitingly precipitous plot – visiting by arrangement I think, apart from their Scottish Gardens open day – is further inland and more sheltered from the wind than us). They are among so many stunning specialist nurseries in Scotland – including Glendoick near Perth which I visited last month to pick up Vireya rhododendrons for Laura, and Abriachan Nursery on the shores of Loch Ness near Inverness (actually also quite vertical), all of which have outstanding catalogues and terrifically high quality stock. It must be frustrating for them to see the car parks full at the corporately owned garden centres, knowing people are paying the same or more for much less exciting  plants although, hands up, plant porn like Sarah Raven’s catalogue is a constant temptation.

I can’t pretend to know as much as my sisters about peonies. I had lovely blood red ones up North and a tree peony given to me by a friend. Each year its embattled stem drew on the very depths of its ability to produce one gorgeous pale pink flower before it collapsed back into hibernation – the whole process had the air of a Shakespearean tragedy and a silent accusation that I’d failed it.

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