Queen of flowers in China, peonies were introduced in France after the Chinese emperor of the time had sent a collection of the flowers to Napoleon Bonaparte’s wife Joséphine.
Today, thanks to two centuries of hybridization, a great many shapes and colors have become available.
Peonies, a short story
Swaying at the tip of their slender stalks, Chinese peonies charm us with their round heads woven from countless petals. This oriental beauty symbolizes Love in its native country and seduces romantic souls unto today… as it does flower mongers, too: it is perfect for bouquets! Initial light pastel hues were enriched over the years and now include many colors, some even quite stark, like fuchsia or carmine red, even violet purple. Flowers can be simple (one or two rows of petals), Japanese or anemone blooms (still more petal rows, stamens still visible), semi-double (multiple petal rows, visible stamens), double (numerous petals hiding the stamens), globular type (petals only with no trace of the stamens), and even bomb double type (petals only, with longer petals in the center presenting a spherical flower shape).
Some peony varieties are scented, like the ‘Festiva Maxima’ which has white petals mottled with red spots, ‘Dr Alexander Flemming’ hosting bright pink flowers, or ‘Duchesse de Nemours’ which bears beautiful white pom poms!
Caring for peonies well
Herbaceous peonies like neutral soil, good exposure to the sun, and protection from drafts and wind. Depending on the species, they bloom from April to June. Often purchased in nursing pots, they are preferably planted at the end of spring in a wide hole, with a handful of soil-enriching compost. You can also add them to your vegetable patch: they like it when the soil has been softened and turned over, and are great companions to vegetables, herbs and spices.
Water over the first summer, and then refrain from water, except in cases of drought: peonies are vulnerable to excess moisture. Add fertilizer (manure, compost or powdered bones) at the beginning of fall and in spring after the blooming phase. If your peonies don’t bloom during the first year, wait it out. They may need time to start blooming, but once they have started, each subsequent year will see more and more flowers appear…