Fragrant, beautiful and long-lived--the peony captivates our senses and evokes instant associations, such as grandma's garden or a spring wedding. Yet this feel-good flower isn't just a bloom of the past. Peonies' giant, color-packed blossoms invigorate contemporary gardens, too. Follow our guide to grow your own or build a brilliant bouquet.
Pictured: This easy arrangement features three gorgeous varieties: (top center) 'Do Tell', (top right and bottom left) 'Coral Charm', (top left and bottom right) 'Diana Parks'.
The peony is like the little black dress of flowers: stylish, timeless and always reliable. In fact, gardeners have been planting these beauties for more than a century. "If well-sited, peonies can bloom for 50, 75, 100 years," says Roy Klehm, peony expert and owner of Klehm's Song Sparrow Farm and Nursery in Avalon, Wisconsin.
New colors in peonies, such as coral and salmon, and versatile flower forms, from petal-packed "bombs" to single-petaled flowers with huge swirly centers, offer flower fans beauty in both the garden and vase.
"Peonies offer structure and fragrance in gardens and the landscape," Roy says. And they are favorites in the Midwest, where cold winters and hot summers suit these showy perennials.
Pictured: Mix different flower forms of similar colors to create a textural bouquet. A sweet trio (from left): white 'Over Easy', green-tinted 'Green Halo' and kiss-of-pink 'Serene Pastel'.
For long-lasting blooms, follow these tips from Sarah Rummery, horticulturist at Reiman Gardens in Ames, Iowa
• Site in the sun "Plan ahead when you plant your peonies," Sarah says. "Don't place them near trees that will grow tall and shade them."
• Plant in well-drained soil "Peonies don't like wet feet," Sarah says.
• Don't relocate "Peonies detest being transplanted," she says. Six- to 7-foot-long roots make moving them difficult.
• Feed them well Fertilize peonies once a year. The ideal time? "In the spring while they are actively growing," Sarah says.
• Cut back foliage When foliage turns brown (after a hard frost), cut it to the ground.
• Stake tall varieties Add peony rings or guards to support tall varieties that flop.
• Ignore ants Ants sip the nectar on peony buds, but they don't harm the plant. Shake them off when you cut the flowers.
On this and the next four slides are five easy-to-find peony varieties that grow exceptionally well in the Midwest. (Typically, peonies grow in Zones 3 to 8.)
'Coral Charm' (left) is an early-blooming, semidouble peony -- a showstopper in the garden and a great cut flower. Dark coral buds open to sweetly scented cupped coral-peach blossoms. It's also an American Peony Society Gold Medal recipient.
The soft, light salmon petals of 'Serene Pastel' are blushed with pink. As the flower ages, it fades to white with pink highlights. The variety is noted for its fragrance.
Sweet pink outer petals surround a frilly center of rose, pink and white on 'Do Tell' flowers. This Japanese peony is a consistent performer from North to South--and, of course, the Midwest. It's an American Peony Society Gold Medal recipient.
Exotic pink and gold petals surround a center of pink petaloids on this semidouble peony. 'Lois E. Klehm' boasts strong stems and a pleasing fragrance. It blooms midseason.
A top garden performer, this tousled flower offers semidouble to double ivory-white petals kissed with candy red streaking against deep-green foliage.
For a brilliant bouquet, group an array of peonies in a low bowl (clockwise from top): soft pink 'Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt', a pair of 'Green Halo' blooms, pink-and-gold 'Lois E. Klehm', petite 'Ivory Escort' and twin 'Pink Kisses'.
Double peonies, with multiple rows of petals, pack extra petal punch. One light pink 'Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt' and one magenta 'Diana Parks' fill a vase.
Tips for longer-lasting cut peonies:
• Cut peonies in the morning or evening when it's cooler.
• Cut flowers that have just started to bloom.
• Trim about an inch off the bottom of the stem, cutting at an angle to expose more stem to water.
• Remove leaves that will be under water when the peony is in a vase.
• Keep peonies out of direct sunlight.
• Replace the water every two to three days.
Midwest buying sources for peonies include:
• Klehm's Song Sparrow Farm and Nursery, Avalon, Wisconsin (800/553-3715; songsparrow.com).
• Gilbert H. Wild and Son, 2944 State Hwy. 37, Reeds, Missouri (888/449-4537; gilberthwild.com).