Improved peonies can keep gardens free of floppy flowers

One of the best things about having a large garden is the ability to cut flowers and bring them indoors.

After the irises are done, our house is filled with peonies.

The season was short this year because of some brief, heavy rains and extreme heat, but the house is still filled with their flowers and fragrance.

Most gardens have peonies they inherited.

The plants will live for more than 50 years, and I frequently see ‘Mon Jules Elie’ lining yards with dozens of flowers face down in the rain.

I ditched the ones in our garden and selected new plants for their fragrance.

‘Raspberry Sundae’ was the first. It’s a bombe type with a full blossom that develops outward like an explosion.

The buds are light pink, but as the flower develops, layers of cream and deeper pink appear.

It’s sweetly fragrant. Mine don’t reach the 10-inch diameter that’s been claimed, but 7 inches is average and it doesn’t take many to fill even a large vase.

‘Raspberry Sundae’ is on the east side of the house paired with a 1940s introduction, ‘Kansas.’

It’s a double flower, probably what most people envision when peony is mentioned, and a deeper shade of pink that perfectly complements ‘Raspberry Sorbet.’ It also has a light perfume.

My favorite for cutting is a real oldie, though, and I wish the previous owners had planted it.

‘Fiesta Maxima’ was introduced in the 1850s and is still a perfect cut flower. It has double white blossoms with threads of brilliant red, and it’s highly perfumed.

If I left any of these unsupported, I’d also have rows of flowers in the dirt. But I put supports on the plants as soon as I clean up the dead foliage (it can harbor botrytis blight) in the autumn. Cheap peony hoops are too short and too flimsy. I use tomato cages on my peonies.  And I cut the blossoms as soon as they color because it defies the laws of physics to expect huge flowers like these to stay upright.

For garden display, I depend primarily on Itoh hybrid peonies, which have woody stems and outward-facing flowers that stand up to the elements.

Many of these bury their flowers among the leaves, so be sure to see photos of the flowers on the plants before making a selection. ‘Shima-nishiki,” which has red and white flowers, is my favorite Itoh.

It looks like a cheerleader’s pom-pom.

Ours was fabulously gaudy and filled with flowers high above the foliage before it was killed when the front pond was removed.

The drawback to Itohs is looking at their scraggly, woody stems all winter.

Unlike herbaceous peonies, they don’t die back to the ground in autumn.

I didn’t think I had other choices if I wanted peonies out in the garden until I attended a talk by Roy Klehm, the leading peony marketer and hybridizer in the U.S.

He gifted each audience member his favorite peony, ‘Abalone Pearl.’

It blooms about two weeks before my other herbaceous peonies and has such sturdy stems that the double flowers stand up to anything.

In cool weather like Port’s, the flowers start out apricot orange but fade to almost cream before the petals fall.

So dump those rows of ‘Mon Jules Elie’ that flop. There are better peonies out there for every garden. They’re worth looking for.

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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