Oh, to breathe in the fresh scent of peonies in the garden or in a vase. They bring such a sense of history to our lives and for good reason. According to records, the peony may have been discovered as far back as 1000 B.C. and originated in China. It became a common plant for medicinal purposes in the East and a popular subject of the art world. You will find this flower in many works of Chinese and Japanese art and in their imperial gardens.

Since that time, peonies have spread throughout the world and are now grown more for their ornamental value than anything else. They are very popular in our region as they produce large exotic blooms that are rarely found in any other flower type.

Peonies require a minimum of 6 hours of sunlight per day in a well-drained soil for optimum blooming. It is best to remember that they do not like to be planted in wet areas as they will easily rot in these conditions. They will also take from two to four years to produce their first flowers from a small root or division, so be patient.

These unique plants are available in a wide range of colors, sizes and types. The most common type that we will find in our region is the herbaceous peony. These are the large flowering double blooms of red, pink, white and two-toned colors. There are also fern-leaf and tree peonies that are becoming more and more popular in our area, however, they usually are a little more expensive in retail markets. It would be well worth your time if you shop diligently for these types of plants in the market as you may just find a bargain!

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The herbaceous peonies come in the double (Chinese types) and the semi-double or single forms (Japanese types). They typically grow to a height of 3 to 4 feet. The double flowering types usually require some sort of support while blooming as the flower heads are quite heavy. Isn’t it funny how it always seems to rain when these types are in full bloom?? The next thing you know, they are lying on the ground praying for a lift!! I find that a peony or tomato cage helps keep these plants upright, even during the rain, but they have to be placed around the plant at the time they emerge from the ground. The semi-double or single varieties usually do not require additional support, as the flowers are lighter in size.

The fern-leaf peony is more delicate looking and not as large as the herbaceous or tree types. They tend to grow under 2 feet in height and are the first to bloom of the peonies. They have fine, fern-type foliage and usually bloom in a deep burgundy or brilliant red. The plant may die back and go dormant during the hotter dry months of the summer but will remain green with more cool and damp summers.

To read more columns written by John Zvirovski, click here.

The tree peony is different than the other two varieties, as it does not get cut back to the ground in the fall. Spring growth occurs on the wood that is left behind from the previous year and they range in height from 4 to 5 feet. They come in a large range of colors such as violet, copper, yellow, purple and orchid, to name a few. They bloom around or before the time the herbaceous peonies bloom and hold their blooms high on sturdy stems without a need for staking. The tree peonies tend to produce the largest flowers of the peony varieties and make a great addition to any garden.

If you are looking to bring some of this beauty indoors, simply cut a few stems from your peony when the bud is about one-fourth open. Lightly tap them on your thigh to eliminate any ants or bugs that may be on them before bringing them indoors to place in a vase. Remember to never cut from a peony that is under three years of age and to never remove more than 50 percent of the blooms, as this will cause undue stress to the plant's vigor.

It is important to remove the dead flowers from the plant after the blooming season has finished to prevent energy going into seed production. In the fall, it is best to cut the plant back to 1 inch from the ground to prevent disease from occurring from the vegetation over the winter months. These practices will allow you to enjoy the peonies for many years to come with little or no issues.

All peony types can grow and bloom for years without dividing but when the blooming starts to decline, it is time to divide the roots. The best time of year to divide peonies is in early fall to allow the roots to adjust before the ground freezes up. Spring division of peonies tends to put them under stress and they do not fare as well in reestablishing. The crown of the peony root should be about 2 inches below the surface of the soil line for optimum growing. If it is planted too shallow, the root can become damaged due to the winter cold and if it is too deep, it can prevent them from blooming.

In the coming week, you will notice these exotic plants burst into full bloom and fill the air with a light fragrance from the East. Even though we may never leave our country of origin, that doesn’t mean that we can’t enjoy the influences of other cultures in our own backyard. Who knows, maybe we will catch ourselves doing a painting in the backyard of just another beautiful specimen of the plant world. I have also found if you are going through a drought year, it is nearly a guarantee that it will rain, as soon as the double blooms open.