Peonies are a tradition in many Iowa flower gardens. Though their blooms come only once a year and last for a short time, they are so spectacular as to be worth the wait.
We’re talking about the herbaceous perennial peony that everyone remembers from their grandma’s garden. Peony flowers can be single, semidouble or double. Doubles are most commonly seen in Iowa landscapes. Flower colors vary from purest white to deep carmine red, with a few yellows thrown in for good measure.
Peonies have a long and well-documented history, beginning in China, traveling through Greece to Rome, and then popping up in many an English cottage garden before gaining a foothold in flower gardens throughout the United States. The peony is the designated flower for the 12th wedding anniversary.
Peonies are best divided and transplanted in the fall. Use a fork to dig them — less chance of slicing the roots off. If you have family or friends who have them, see if you can have a start from theirs.
Once you’ve lifted the root ball and gently removed the soil, you’ll see several little pink “eyes” or buds at the base of the plant. Divide the plant so each division has four to six eyes, smaller divisions will take a long time to come fully to bloom.
Choose a site in full sun. Peonies planted in shade or in competition with other shrubs will fail to thrive and may never bloom. Plant the peony division so that the eyes are no more than 2 inches deep. Peonies planted too deeply will fail to bloom. Water well and add mulch.
Peony foliage dies during the winter. Remove old stems and leaves after frost in fall, or in the spring.
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When new stems begin to emerge, give the plant support with some fairly stiff wire fence, a couple of feet tall is plenty. Because blooms are so large, they have a tendency to flop over, especially when it rains.
Where there are peonies, there are ants. However, it’s a myth that ants help the peony flowers to open. Ants are drawn to the flower’s sweet nectar.
Once blooms are spent, trim them off so the plant can concentrate on root growth rather than making seeds. Some people cut the plants down to the ground after bloom, but leaving stems and leaves attached helps the plant gain strength for next year.
Once established, peonies will increase in size and bloom year after year.
•Jackie MacLaren is a Linn County Master Gardener.