IN THE GARDEN: Unleashing the power of the peony
Alaska’s peonies have become a desired crop to sell to the Lower 48 for the wedding season because our peonies bloom at 1-2 months later and are perfect for June and July weddings for which they are highly desired. This year, our cool June has slowed the peony crops development. Peonies are picked in the mature bud stage, can be refrigerated for up to two months and will bloom when taken out and placed in water and last for approximately 7-10 days. Peonies have surpassed the rose in popularity for weddings.
Some interesting trivia about peonies: They are the floral symbol of China. They are said to represent good fortune and a happy marriage. Native to Europe and Asia, peonies were brought over to England by the Romans in the year 1200. Centuries ago, peonies were used medicinally to cure headaches, relieve pain in childbirth and in the treatment of asthma. The state flower of Indiana is the peony. When a couple has been married 12 years, the peony is the flower that celebrates that success. It is so fun learning all these interesting facts about one of my favorite flowers.
Peonies are perennials and grow best in zone 3-8. Preferring cold winters, peonies require at least 400 hours of temperatures below 40 degrees to bloom in spring and early summer. For us, it is more likely to be late June to mid July for mature bud development.
Ants play an important role in the blooming flower bud. The flower buds produce nectar that attracts ants, which will chew open the bud covering to get at the nectar. Your peonies will bloom without ants but this action will help the process. The ants also keep other damaging insects away.
The planting and care of peonies is fairly simple. First of all, the plants prefer well drained fertile soil. Dig a hole 18-by-18 inches, loosening the soil. Plant the crown no deeper than 1.5 inches below the soil. Planting too deep is one of the major causes of a peony not blooming, and too shallow the cause of freezing and death. Place the plants 12 to 18 inches apart. Add lime and bone meal initially when planted and then late summer before our rains start. In the fall, after the stems turn brown, cut the peony back to the ground.
Peonies are drought tolerant and only need water when they are dry a couple times a year. Alaska is usually too wet so don’t over water. After the initial planting do not overfertilize your peony. Too much nitrogen can cause the plant not to bloom. Immature peonies will usually not bloom for a couple of years so be patient. When clumps become too large and start dying in the middle it is time to divide your peonies to give them some room and new life. Once disturbed and moved, it will probably take them a while to re-bloom. Remember, peonies can live longer than 60 years, and this is why you will see people dig up their peonies when they move.
Peonies like full sun. If your peonies are not doing well, look for that sweet spot of full sun and no more than a little shade. My peonies are in partial shade and they have buds but have not bloomed yet. In other areas of town with full sun, the peonies have already bloomed. Location is really one of the keys to a thriving plant full of blooms.
You can save the peony seeds and plant up more plants. At a peony conference this past year, we were told that if you take peony seeds up on the mountainside and throw out the seed, peonies might just grow. Evidently, peonies grow wild in rocky crevices on mountain hillsides in China and survive just out of the reach of mountain goats which love to eat them. In other words, these plants are tough!
There are many varieties of peonies to buy and the most popular wedding color I learned is white and blush. Sarah Burnhardt, Shirley Temple, Raspberry Sundae, Coral Charm, Julia Rose, Duchess De Nemours and Coral Sunset are just a few of the hundreds of varieties.
The Alaska Peony Society has a Facebook page, which is a great resource for you if you have questions about the varieties of peonies that grow well here. This group has educational events and tours for members in the summer. Much is known and written about peonies. New varieties are being developed all the time. Here is a beautiful flower that we can actually grow in Alaska successfully and that will provide you with years of enjoyment. Give peonies a try, they are worth it!
Chris Wood is president of the Greater Eagle River Garden Club. Write to her at [email protected].