Paeonia mlokosewitschii

Some gardeners complain that peonies have too short a period of beauty to justify their space, especially in a small garden, but peony ‘mlok’ cannot be so accused. Flowering in mid-spring, when the weather is still cool or cold, you should be able to enjoy its lemon-yellow single flowers (lemon with a hint of green) for three weeks. Each flower has a large boss of deeper yellow stamens.

But ‘mlok’ is lovely both before and after flowering. A herbaceous perennial, its crimson shoots start to push through the soil in winter, one of the first signs of hope on the way. The leaves are a charming soft blue-green all through spring and summer, and there are curious seed-pods in autumn, which split to reveal a double row of large red and black seeds.

If you have bought plants, put them in 3 feet (90 cm) apart in manured soil just below the surface, in sun or dappled shade, allowing space for as large a patch as you can spare. If you are a patient gardener, and can wait five years for flowers, sow seeds in a box and leave it outside against a north wall until shoots appear, which may take two years. Then plant them in their final quarters and never disturb them, but add manure round the plants, not on the shoots, every autumn.

My own patch is planted in a bed under an apple tree with blue Clematis macropetala climbing into its branches, and the two come out together.

Paeonia officinalis ‘Rubra Plena’ ‘No flower that I know so faire, great and double’ wrote John Parkinson of the crimson cottage peony in 1629 in his classic work The Earthly Paradise, and I can do no better than quote his admiring words. Perhaps it is childish of me to choose it as a favourite plant when there are available so many glorious modern hybrids, of Chinese rather than European origin, but its history as an English garden plant is so old that I am much attached to it. Though its flowering season is short, the huge, rich green, deep-cut leaves .make some of the best foliage in the garden, and as the flower buds come out in succession, not all at once, they should give you a month’s pleasure. They are perfect for cutting, perhaps just three or four stems, leaves and all, with some white lilac.

They make large plants 2 feet (60 cm) tall, flowering in late spring, and grow best in rich, well-drained soil, mulched annually with manure. They love lime, even chalk. They are mainly plants for the sun, but will tolerate light shade, in which case the flowers will last longer.

The scented Chinese peonies are taller and flower later, in early summer, and there is a vast range of hybrids available in red, pink, cream or white. One of the finest is the double ‘Lady Alexandra Duff, a pure, sweet pink seen at its luscious best with shrub roses in the forecourt of the Elizabethan garden at Cranborne Manor, in Dorset.

Plant peonies in autumn 3 feet (90 cm) apart with plenty of manure, and do not plant deep. If undisturbed they will last for a lifetime.

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