Origin and Distribution
Peonies, also known as peonies from their Latin name Paeonia, are the only genus of the peony family (Paeoniaceae). There are peonies that grow shrub-like and perennial, with only the first variant woody. Perennial peonies, on the other hand, die above ground over the winter, only to sprout again in the following spring.
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Regardless of which of the 32 species it is: Peonies occur exclusively in the northern hemisphere, but on almost all parts of the world with the exception of the Arctic. Except for two types of peonies, all the others are native to Europe and Asia, whereby perennial peonies such as the common peony (Paeonia officinalis) are native to the mountainous regions of southern Europe. Shrub and tree peonies (Paeonia Suffruticosa hybrids) and noble peonies (Paeonia lactiflora hybrids), on the other hand, come from China and have been cultivated there for more than 2000 years.
The wild species of today's cultural hybrids thrive primarily in light mountain forests and in the rough steppe regions of the temperate and subtropical climates.
In Europe, the common or peasant peony is one of the oldest garden plants. Not only the simple, but also the double varieties with their mostly pink to dark red flowers have been in cultivation for centuries. Traditionally, this perennial peony is planted together with the magnificent cranesbill (Geranium x magnificum) and the (Alchemilla mollis), primarily in the front garden or in the flowerbed. It can also be used as a companion plant, for example along the main path to the front door.
The lactiflora hybrids imported from Asia at an early stage, on the other hand, - like other shrub peonies - can be used very well for gardens in the Asian style, for example in combination with hostas or bamboo. A bamboo grove planted as a privacy hedge looks pretty and is accompanied by various peonies in the foreground.
The reticulated peony (Paeonia tenuifolia) from the steppes of Asia is perfect for dry and sunny locations and is best shown to its best advantage in a single position in a stone or gravel garden.
Appearance and stature
All peonies are perennial, deciduous plants that, with good care, can remain in one and the same location for many decades. The form and height of growth depend largely on whether it is a shrub or herbaceous peony.
Shrub peonies form up to 200 centimeters long, woody shoots that are noticeably thick. The upright shrubs branch out very little and also grow very slowly. Perennial peonies, on the other hand, reach a maximum height of about 60 to 100 centimeters and thus remain significantly smaller. This is not surprising, since these varieties sprout anew each spring and otherwise overwinter in tuberous storage roots (the so-called rhizomes) close to the surface of the earth.
The relatively young Itoh hybrids, which are hybrids of shrub and perennial peonies, develop a rather herbaceous, but strong growth and larger flowers.
Herbaceous peonies sprout in spring with distinctive, dark red shoots, from which both the strong flower stalks and the long petioles with the large, alternately arranged and unpinnate leaves develop. Shrub peonies, on the other hand, usually have double-pinnate and light to blue-green leaves that are also arranged alternately.
Blossoms and flowering period
The very large flowers, measuring more than 20 centimeters in some varieties, are always at the end of the long, thick flower stalks. Outwardly they are similar to rose petals and can be single, half or full. The largest flower heads develop shrub-like peonies.
The flower colors mostly vary between different pink and red tones, but there are also white or yellow flowering varieties. The flowers of some varieties also have an intense scent, which is why the dried petals of these peonies are often used for potpourris.
Most varieties bloom in spring or early summer between May and June, but only for a few weeks.
Peonies are often approached by butterflies, bumblebees and other insects, which also ensure that the large flowers are fertilized. Then large follicles form, which open in autumn as they ripen and reveal dark seeds up to one centimeter in size. The fruits with the shiny seeds can easily remain on the plant, especially since it gives the plant an attractive and interesting appearance even outside the flowering period.
The peony has been used in naturopathy since ancient times. Roots, petals and seeds should help with cramps, as well as intestinal problems and gout. Even today, homeopathy knows peony roots as a remedy for hemorrhoids. To what extent these remedies are actually effective is of course another matter.
Sometimes the delicate petals of the peonies are also recommended for the preparation and decoration of salads, smoothies, desserts and other dishes. However, you should exercise caution, because all parts of the plant contain toxic glycosides and alkaloids, which, consumed in large quantities, can lead to typical symptoms of poisoning. These include stomach and intestinal cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
Peonies are only slightly toxic to humans, although symptoms of poisoning may or may not occur due to the individual tolerance threshold - everyone reacts differently here. However, caution is advised with small children and pets, as these are smaller and therefore the toxicity threshold is lower. For dogs, peonies are even classified as highly toxic.
Which location is suitable?
Most peonies and varieties prefer a location in full sun, which is particularly important for the herbaceous peonies. Bush peonies, on the other hand, also feel at home in a light, partially shaded spot, provided they are exposed to direct sunlight in the afternoon and evening.
Incidentally, peonies are not suitable for underplanting trees or high bushes, as the plants cannot deal with the pressure of roots and competition due to their deep root system.
With regard to the nature of the soil, peonies are not very demanding. The soil does not have to contain too much humus, and the plants also feel comfortable in loamy or sandy soils - provided that they are deep, well-drained and fresh to moist. Only waterlogging and a high groundwater level are unsuitable for peonies, because fungal infections and rot are inevitable consequences under the influence of constant moisture. Drought, on the other hand, is tolerated well because the storage root can store moisture.
Before planting, loosen the soil thoroughly and, above all, deep. The thick roots dig to a depth of one and a half or even two meters, which is why the soil at the planting site must not be too heavy or too firm. A heavy, water-storing garden soil can be improved with coarse sand and fine pebbles.
Peonies can be grown well in sufficiently large planters, which however require good drainage and plenty of soil. A mixture of conventional potting soil, coarse sand and clay granulate is suitable as a substrate. Choose wide and deep vessels so that there is enough space for the dense network of roots. Also keep in mind that shrub peonies can grow up to about 200 centimeters tall over the years and also take up a lot of space in width. These plants therefore need a lot of space around themselves even in a container culture, which is why a small balcony is not very suitable.
In addition to the regular supply of water and nutrients, a frost-free winter must also be ensured. Perennial peonies are best overwintered in a cool and frost-free place, possibly in the cellar or garage. The storage root cannot be sufficiently protected from the cold due to the small amount of substrate and therefore needs support.
Plant peony properly
When it comes to planting, herbaceous peonies and shrub peonies make a big difference: plant peonies as flat as possible in the ground, while shrub peonies are as deep as possible. There are good reasons for this approach: While perennials planted too deeply only develop leaves and no flowers, shrubs that are too shallow die off after a few years. The shrub-like growing species are often grafted onto the perennial peonies, which is why the grafting point must be buried between five and ten centimeters deep. This is the only way for the shrub peony to develop its own roots - if it is unable to do so because the planting is too shallow, the rice will be rejected after a while.
Dig the planting holes about two spade lengths deep and with a diameter of at least 60 centimeters. Improve loamy soil with coarse sand, clay granulate or gravel, while sandy soil is enhanced with compost. Carefully loosen the bottom of the planting hole and, if necessary, add a drainage layer - for example, made of pebbles and sand.
What is the best time to plant?
The best time to plant peonies is early autumn between September and mid-October. At this point the plants are already going into hibernation. However, the soil and weather are still warm enough that the roots can grow before the cold season. Always cover peonies planted in autumn with brushwood to protect them from frost, because the young plants only acquire their winter protection after a few years of standing. Alternatively, planting can also be done in spring.
The correct planting distance
Perennial peonies need a planting distance of an average of 80 centimeters, whereby large-growing varieties sometimes have to be placed with 100 centimeters of space to the neighboring plant. Bush peonies are much larger and accordingly need more space: depending on the type and variety, you leave between 120 and 150 centimeters of space, although these variants are best shown off as solitaires.
Watering the peony
Occasional watering may be necessary, especially in the first year after planting, on dry, sandy soils and during longer periods of drought in midsummer. As a rule, however, additional watering is not necessary as the plants can take care of themselves thanks to their extensive root system. Only specimens cultivated in pots depend on a regular water supply.
Fertilize peony properly
In principle, planted peonies do not have to be fertilized, since the species are poor eaters and therefore only have a low nutritional requirement. Too much fertilizer - especially nitrogen-based fertilizers - can even weaken the plants, so that diseases and pests are threatened. Use fertilizers that contain phosphate and potassium and are applied in the spring if necessary. Horn shavings (€ 6.39 at Amazon *) and manure are not suitable for fertilizing peonies, and compost is also only conditionally suitable.
Cut the peony correctly
Cut herbaceous peonies just above the ground between October and November, when the stems are gradually turning brown and drying up. Shrub peonies, on the other hand, basically do not need pruning, they also grow so beautifully lush and do not bald. Only in severe, very frosty winters may branches freeze back that you cut away in spring after budding. However, you should definitely wait for the buds to appear so that you do not accidentally remove any living, flower-forming buds. Wilted flower heads can, but do not have to be, cut off. This measure only makes sense to protect endangered peonies from (renewed) fungal infection.
Herbaceous peonies can easily be propagated by dividing them. Duplication is more difficult with the shrub peonies, because they have to be grafted onto the roots of the shrub peonies. The gardener describes this process as nurse propagation, whereby the perennial, as a nurse, takes care of the shrub until it has developed its own roots. If this is too complicated for you, you can also try slightly woody countersinks. Propagation is of course also possible via seeds, but it is tedious and subject to many sources of error.
Diseases and pests
Peonies are very sensitive to fungal diseases, which occur mainly due to fertilization that is too nitrogenous and / or on nutrient-rich soils. The so-called peony botrytis (gray mold), which occurs mainly in specimens planted on humus-rich soils, is common.
If you dig up and divide an ancient peony, don't put the pieces back to their previous location. Instead, choose a new one to prevent soil fatigue. This often causes stunted growth.
Species and varieties
Worldwide there are around 40 different types of peonies, which differ not only in their growth form, but also in the formation and color of their flowers. There are countless varieties, most of which bloom in shades of pink, red and white. Some of the most beautiful variants for the garden are for example these:
- 'Karl Rosenfield': Paeonia lactiflora, purple-red, double flowers, old variety
- 'Sarah Bernhardt': Paeonia lactiflora, light pink, double flowers, old variety
- 'Alba Plena': Paeonia officinalis, white, double flowers
- 'Cora Louise': Itoh hybrid, creamy white flowers with purple-reddish basal spot, semi-double
- 'Garden Treasure': Itoh hybrid, flowers pale yellow with red basal spots, semi-double
- 'Bartzella': Itoh hybrid, lemon yellow flowers, semi-double
- 'Otto Froebel': Paeonia peregrina, simple, pink flowers
- 'Sunshine': Paeonia peregrina, single, red flowers
- 'Carina': Hybrid, semi-double, red flowers
- 'Candy Stripe': Paeonia lactiflora, striking, multi-colored flowers: white with purple stripes, double
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