Paeonies are the aristocrats of the herbaceous perennial world. The flower stalks rise up above the attractive foliage and each one bears several blooms – blooms which make most other garden flowers blush with shame. Vast bowls of petals up to 7 in. across – single, semi-double, double or Anemone-flowered in a wide array of colours. When making your choice, remember that doubles last longer than singles and the species determines the month when the plants can be expected to bloom . Regard Paeonies as a long-term investment and learn the rules before you start planting. Choose an open, sunny spot but try to avoid a situation where early morning sun will shine on the plants. Early autumn is the best time for planting and the soil should be deeply dug and enriched with compost or leaf mould. Set the crown of the plant no lower than 1 in. below the soil surface. The main thing you then have to remember is to leave the plant alone – it may not flower in the first season and will not be properly established for three years. Avoid transplanting at all costs and do not try to divide clumps to increase your stock. The cultural rules are quite straightforward – mulch in spring, stake the stems, water when the weather is dry, deadhead faded blooms, feed with a general fertilizer in late summer and cut down the stems to ground level in autumn.

VARIETIES: The Common or May-flowering Paeony (P. officinalis) grows wild in many parts of Europe and is an old cottage garden favourite – height 2 ft. Spacing 2.5 ft.

Flowering period: May-June. The 5 in. blooms are red in the wild species but you can now buy double varieties in several shades – Alba Plena’ (white), ‘Rosea Plena’ (pink), etc. The most popular Paeonies are the varieties of the Chinese or June-flowering Paeony (P. lactiflora) – height 2.5-3 ft. Spacing 2 ft.

Flowering period: June-July. The blooms are up to 7 in. across and the range of colour and flower shapes is extensive. There are fine doubles like ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ (pink), ‘Festiva Maxima’ (white) and ‘M Jules Elie’ (silvery rose). There are singles such as ‘William Cranfield’ (red) and the beautiful Anemone-flowered ‘Bowl of Beauty’ (pink; cream centre). For an early display grow the April-flowering Paeony (P. mlokosewitschii) – height ½ ft. Spacing 1.5 ft.

Flowering period: April-May. The 4 in. single flowers are yellow and the leaves have a bronzy tinge.

SITE AND SOIL: Any well-drained cultivated soil will do – thrives best in full sun.

PROPAGATION: Buy a named variety from a nursery or garden centre – do not divide clumps. ,

P. ‘Sarah Bernhardt’

Chinese Paeony

P. officinalis ‘Rubra Plena’

Common Paeony

P. mlokosewitschii

April-flowering Paeony

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