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Plant Profile: Tree Peonies, Aristocrats of the Garden

Easy-to-grow, low maintenance shrubs for light shade, these sumptuous flowers were worth their weight in gold in imperial China. Consider planning now to add two or three to your garden

Few plants bestow upon a garden understated sophistication and regal splendor as surely as do tree peonies.  This is my first blog-post on Port Washington Patch about what I have learned during 20 years as a professional garden designer, horticulturist, and plantsman.

As distinguished from herbaceous peonies, which are cut to the ground in early autumn, tree peonies are woody plants, shrubs really, that leave a visible framework through winter -- and do not need staking.  Nor do they require any annual pruning.  Easily reaching a height and width of five feet (in 12 years), they should be more or less left alone, although I do like to remove their leaves to the trash as they fall (or before they do), because they can be susceptible to a fungus.  They prefer dappled shade or full-sun in the morning with some afternoon shade.  Peony flowers last less than a week and too much sun wilts them into dehiscence.  As with any planting, relieve compaction to a generous diameter and depth, and amend with compost, especially where the soil has been disturbed by construction.

Tree peonies were first cultivated and prized in imperial China (moutan), but I have always grown the Japanese cultivars because they are less extravagantly enormous and heavy:  their stems can support their weight.  In any case though, if the flowers absorb rain they will droop badly -- or the dozens of petals will fall to the ground.  However, a tree peony in leaf is a handsome element in a mixed border.

They are expensive.  Now is good time to source and order them.  Often one sees them labeled merely "red" or "pink."  I avoid these and search instead for named cultivars.  In recent years there have emerged numerous new American-bred cultivars.  Unless you find a tree peony in a garden center, in which case it will be in a 2- or 3-gal pot and it will have one or more flower buds, when you mail-order it will not likely flower the first year.  However, I can attest that tree peonies in my gardens always are in flower at the end of the first week of May, with lilac, wistaria, Spiraea x vanhouttei, columbines, and forget-me-nots -- which, most years, coincides with Mother's Day!  And they are very, very long-lived plants.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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