Gardening is a form of gambling, as I see it. Every time we sow a seed, we voluntarily participate in a risk-taking activity, an indulgent diversion that involves putting up an investment in time, money, supplies, and effort, hoping for a payout.
– Felder Rushing, Slow Gardening
Peonies have always been one of my favourite flowers. They are so lavish, so opulent. There is nothing that can compare to a generous bouquet of cut peonies placed in a large vase. The pleasure goes on and on – from the tight, fat glossy buds to the blowsy final days of the flower. Oh, yes.
I have grown peonies in a number of different locations and they’ve never caused me the slightest problem. This is not true for tree peonies, but more about that later. The regular sort of peony, the herbaceous peony, is accommodating and dependable, blooming year after year and getting better for the passage of time. I am especially fond of the combination of peonies and irises.
Because the blossoms of peonies are round and generous, they are often said to represent good fortune in romance and happy marriage. In China, peonies were popular in Sui and Tang dynasty palaces and are therefore associated with high value, honor and nobility.
A few years ago, a good friend took me on a tour of the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden in Vancouver, BC. It was there that I saw a tree peony for the first time. It was a Paeonia Rockii in full bloom and it was magnificent. For me, it was a case of love at first sight. Since then, I have gotten my hands on Paeonia Rockii twice, at a fairly steep price and, both times, the plants have died after a short time. I don’t know why. As a gardener, it is necessary to be philosophical about these events, as they occur regularly.
Happily, I’ve had better experiences with other varieties of tree peony. Right now, a white flowered Paeonia suffruticosa – I think it is a ‘Renkaku’ – has nearly finished blooming. For the most part, the inexpensive tree peonies I have purchased at Walmart have done better for me than the expensive ones from nurseries. This is probably just the luck of the draw, or perhaps I have coddled the expensive ones too much and they’ve died of overwatering. At one point, I had two magenta flowered tree peonies and decided to give one away to a friend. The one I gave away is flourishing, while the one I kept is malingering. What did she do differently? She planted it out in the garden one year, after which she potted it up in a container. It still lives in the container – the foliage is gorgeous and it produced a single magenta flower this year.
I had a Tibetan tree peony (Paeonia lutea var. ludlowii) for 5 or 6 years. Seemingly happy in its large pot, it came back bigger and better every year, producing gorgeous yellow blossoms, until one year we had a particularly cold, wet winter, when it perished from something swift and dark – most likely botrytis.
If this is starting to sound like a lament for tree peonies I have loved and lost, I defy you to name a gardener who doesn’t have stories like these. Yet, we keep on doing it; in fact, we are even more devoted to the difficult plants.