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Peonies: For gorgeous flowers in spring, plant in fall

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Courtesy of Gardenology

(Read caption) This peony is Paeonia ‘Illini Belle’. It's a hybrid that is absolutely one of the best. It has semi-double, red petals on strong stems that need no staking.

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In my Illinois garden, peonies have always been on my list of exceptionally consistent performers. These old-fashioned perennials have never let me down. Like so many other gardeners the world over, I prize them for their beauty, fragrance, and outstanding hardiness.

Rugged and practically indestructible (except in the South and in warmer parts of California, where many don't perform well), peonies are endowed with the kind of blossoms that make one nostalgic for grandma’s garden.  Some of this is due to their ability to last for years with little care – a century is not uncommon – but mostly it is due to the combination of grace and enticing beauty that adds great three-season value to the landscape.

I started collecting peonies the way most people do – by buying the well-known Paeonia lactiflora hybrids that produce blowsy flowers in various shades of pink and creamy white in late May and early June.

Many of these were bred in France during the mid-19th century largely for the cut-flower trade, rather than for gardens. One of the first peony plants that I purchased, that of ‘Sarah Bernhardt’, has stems that are too weak to support the enticing flowers in the garden, though she’s magnificent in a vase.

Go modern

A better selection would have been ‘Dinner Plate’, with her immense, shell-pink, highly fragrant blossoms on truly strong stems that never flop.

But at the time, as even now, that was not what most nurseries and online mail-order companies were promoting.

Yes, there are some outstanding older cultivars, but I find that the newer, more modern hybrids -- besides being available in a much wider range of colors, including bright red, clear yellow, apricot, coral, and orange -- are also bred for stronger stems and compactness.

Take ‘Coral Sunset’ for example. This early bloomer, with her ruffled, semi-double blooms of an intense coral with strong pink overtones, is one of the best for an extravagant display regardless of the quirks of weather. Plus, she is a superior cut flower, lasting more than a week indoors when I cut her in full bud.


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