Here in Indiana, peonies are synonymous with May. We’ve given them for Mother’s Day, cut them for May bridal showers, and used them to decorate graves on Memorial Day. Drive through nearly any neighborhood in May, and you’ll see at least a few peonies blooming their pink, white, or red heads off.
For that matter, drive past an abandoned farm and you’re likely to see peonies blooming. Despite their regal appearance, peonies are tough plants that are capable of outliving the gardeners who planted them.
Maybe that’s why peonies are the state flower of Indiana. Hoosiers like to think we’re both pretty and tough.
Peonies bridge the gap between late spring and early summer. Siberian iris bloom at the same time, and the iris’s slim, upright form contrasts beautifully with the peony’s round shape. Peonies look beautiful with roses as well.
While magnificent when in full flower, peonies are definitely one-season show-offs. When their flowers fade, the remaining foliage sits as a neat mound of green. That’s why we like to plant them in mixed borders instead of in rows by themselves, using them as background for later-blooming plants. They look great with grasses and salvias that provide color later in the season.
Peony flowers come in a range of types, from flat single blossoms to massively heavy double flowers. In fact, the flowers can be so large and heavy that the plant has trouble supporting them. To keep your peonies from flopping, use a grow-through ring and set it over the peony when the shoots emerge in early spring. The peony will grow up through the grid, which will help support the plant’s weight.
Peonies are host to ants, which love to sip the nectar they give off. The ants are harmless, although not a lot of fun when you want to bring blooms into the house for an arrangement. Shake ants off the blossoms and then run a stream of water over the bloom to dislodge any hangers-on.
Peonies may be woody (tree peonies that grow 4′ to 6′ tall) or herbaceous (ones that die back to the ground in winter). Herbaceous peonies are far more common here, although tree peonies have their fans, too. Both types absolutely love our zone 5 climate, which gives them the cool winter period that they need.
Peonies do fine in ordinary garden soil. Plant them in full sun when possible for the most blooms, although they can take some shade. Plant the think roots only a few inches deep; if you plant them too deeply, they won’t bloom. Peonies tend to sulk for a year or two after being moved, but they’ll soon settle in and start blooming.
If you have a tree peony, do not cut the woody stem. Herbaceous peonies can (and should) be cut to the ground every fall. Throw old peony foliage away instead of composting it. The leaves can carry disease.
Take a look around this spring to see if the peonies are blooming in your neighborhood. Make note of any you want to add to your garden so you’re ready to plant them this fall. And in the meantime, savor the perfume of the perfect May peony.