Peonies are surprisingly hardy and require little care. But be warned, they are fussy about where they grow. The peony is a cool climate plant that won’t flourish in the upper North Island. Indeed, to flower well it’s recommended they have single-digit temperatures on the ground above the tuber for around 80 days. Ensure maximum chilling by avoiding the use of ground cover like pea straw or bark (this can also increase the possibility of fungal disease).
A symbol of wealth, power and class in China where they’re the national flower, herbaceous peonies were introduced into Europe during the late 18th century; their glorious blooms soon became immensely popular. Plant types available today also include tree peonies and Itoh or intersectional hybrids. Herbaceous peonies die down in autumn and tree peonies will lose their leaves but the woody stems remain. To achieve optimum flowering, each requires a slightly different method of planting.
There is also a wide range of flower types and colours available to today’s gardener, with single, semi-double and double ruffled blooms in shades ranging from white and cream to light pinks through to deep reds.
Flowering generally takes place from late October to early December and most varieties are excellent cut flowers, which should be cut when at the bud stage.
Planting is best done in autumn, unless using containers. Placement and preparation are the keys to success - choose a well-drained space where they’ll get full sun. While they prefer the cold over winter, peonies don’t like shade or being close to trees and shrubs. Planting too deeply will hinder flowering. Generally, in order to enjoy the cold, the tuber with the flower buds needs to be around 5cm below the surface.
Care needs to be taken when choosing companion plants for the peony. These may be chosen to flower at the same time or fill in the space left when the peony dies down. With herbaceous peonies the crown will be exposed when it dies back over winter and it’s important this isn’t smothered.
Leave plenty of room for the plants to develop – when fully grown they’ll need at least a square metre of space, and they’ll happily stay in the same space for up to 15 years without any need to divide or transplant. Fertiliser may improve the size and colour of blooms but use of excessive nitrogen is not recommended as it can lead to fungal disease.
Grey mould (Botrytis) and bacterial blight (Xanthomonas), which may require treatment with a fungicidal spray after the removal of dead foliage, are the two most common diseases affecting the peony in New Zealand – as already noted, peonies are surprisingly easy to grow and need minimum care. However, while they’re tops when it comes to florists, in New Zealand’s north, peonies appear to be reluctant to find their place in the sun.
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