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tree peonies

By Kyrnan Harvey

Mother’s Day is still a few weeks away, giving you plenty of time to shop around for a living plant that will typically be in bloom around second Sundays in May for many years to come.  

Three woody plants readily come to mind that happen to be 100 percent deer proof, long-lived, justifiably popular and reliably in flower May 5 to 15 on Long Island: wisteria, lilac and tree peony. Choice varieties of wisteria and lilac can be found locally at garden centers, with tree peonies less likely. You can get some terrific varieties of tree peonies via mail order, and there is still time to get an order delivered by May 13 but don’t delay.

If you buy an old home with a garden, it is very likely there will be some herbaceous peonies. Durable and long-lived, they are an old-fashioned perfumed favorite for garden and vase. But these peonies die to the ground and are cut down in early fall.

A tree peony in bloom.

Tree peonies, on the other hand, are so-called not because they become trees but because they have woody stems: They are shrubs that do not get cut annually to the ground.

Originally cultivated a couple millennia ago in China for the medicinal use of the skin of its root, Paeonia suffruticosa is a conglomerate of wild species, primarily Paeonia rockii, that have been hybridized. Its sumptuous beauty was naturally celebrated early on by artists, scholars and monks, thereby attaining cultural and imperial significance and assimilation into Japanese court and temple too. In both China and Japan they came to represent wealth, status and female beauty: 

‘When the peonies bloomed,

It seemed as though there were

No flowers around them.’

– Kiitsu (as quoted at TreePeony.com)

The advent of grafting for propagation in the Edo period in Japan contributed to its spread, and breeding by famed nurseryman Lemoine in France in the 19th century and by the American A. P. Saunders in the 20th have resulted in scores of stunning varieties of color and form. 

They are expensive. You can chance upon cheap one- or two-year grafts, in two-gallon pots, labeled merely “red” or “white” or “pink” or “purple.” I avoid these, unless I catch one in flower from which to judge its vigor, and the price is not more than $30. 

Examples of tree peonies in a garden.

There is a wonderful source in northwest Connecticut called Cricket Hill Garden, which I have not visited. It has a beautiful website, dozens of varieties for sale, though some ship only for fall-planting, and White Flower Farm has always shown great judgment in the quality of its plant selection ­— they have six gorgeous varieties still available.

These will be shipped bare-root. You could pot it up for presentation. Avoid a water-logged site for planting. All peonies, herbaceous or woody, will thrive in full sun. Dappled shade is often recommended for tree peonies, and this is indeed preferable because the flowers will last longer, which is not many days by the way, even in the best circumstances. If your soil is compacted you must loosen a square yard a foot deep and, of course, amend with compost if it isn’t loamy. 

If planted in good soil in a good location your gnarly little grafted tree peony will make modest growth this year; will present one or two flowers next year; and will, in five years, become a yard high and wide, with at least a dozen fat buds, and will for many more years to come be a perennial highlight in the gardening year.

Kyrnan Harvey is a horticulturist and garden designer residing in East Setauket. For more information, visit www.boskygarden.com.

All photos by Kyrnan Harvey