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Tree peonies, those 'other' peonies, get a bad rap

By Lee Reich

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, May 4 2011 9:05 a.m. MDT

This undated photo courtesy of Lee Reich shows tree peonies in New Paltz, N.Y. Although tree peonies like to bask in abundant sunlight, the blossoms last longer if shaded.

Lee Reich, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

I wouldn't say the flowers of tree peonies — those "other" peonies — prepare you for the flowery show of the more common herbaceous peonies that come soon after. No, with quivering golden stamens enveloped in dish-size whorls of silky white, pink, red, lavender or yellow petals, tree peony blossoms catapult you into peony-dom.

Later, catch your breath with the herbaceous ones.

Every third garden, it seems, has herbaceous peonies, but you could go from one end of any town to the other and never see a tree peony. Their scarcity is due at least in part to some myths and prejudices that tree peonies have picked up during their thousand-plus years of cultivation.

MYTHS NOS. 1 AND 2

The first myth is in the name: Tree peonies are not trees. Yes, they are woody, but multi-stemmed and usually no more than a few feet high and wide. Eventually, a tree peony may reach 6 feet in height, but that could take decades. And that's hardly a tree; hardly even a large shrub.

But it does highlight a possible prejudice against planting tree peonies — they are slow growing.

It's also a fact that tree peonies are pricey. Eighty-five dollars would not be considered expensive for a tree peony a mere foot high. And you don't have to look hard to find plants selling for a few hundred dollars each.

One reason for this cost is that tree peonies are sometimes propagated by being grafted upon roots of herbaceous peonies, and 50 percent success in grafting is considered acceptable. No matter how a plant is propagated, it takes three or four years before it's large enough to sell. Spectacular blossoms, of course, also figure into pricing.

A couple of years ago, when a local nursery was offering tree peonies in 1-gallon pots for only $10 each, I snatched one up. At that price, slow growth would be tolerable. And I was curious about how slowly they actually grow — and how fast I could make one grow.

MYTH NO. 3

Rumor also has it that tree peonies are difficult to grow. They hail from the dry mountains of western Asia, so abhor "wet feet." And whether or not the plants dislike being buffeted by wind, such conditions would surely and quickly fray the splashy blooms.

I found an almost perfect location for my plant: the slight raised bed that borders my terrace and is protected to the north by a brick wall.

My plant flowered the first spring after I planted it — three blossoms, I think. And it grew. Those blossoms formed at the ends of shoots that each were about 18 inches long, making me hopeful that slow growth was a myth. But here's the rub: Those shoots die back to some degree each winter.

Still, a foot or so survives. A foot or so of growth each year is not too slow, and the plants allegedly pick up speed with age.

THE TRAVELS OF TREE PEONIES

Tree peonies made their way from China to Japan in the 7th century as medicinal plants, then again in the 17th century, this time as ornamental plants.

Japanese breeders developed tree peonies that were quicker growing — initially, at least — than the Chinese hybrids, but lacked their fragrance and fully double blooms. In the last hundred years, American and European breeders got into the act, so now there are hundreds and hundreds of varieties, many of them available from specialty nurseries such as Brothers Herbs and Peonies (www.treony.com), Cricket Hill Garden (www.treepeony.com) and Reath's Nursery (www.reathsnursery.com).

My bargain plant was evidently a Japanese hybrid. The blossoms lack fragrance and the plant did not come with a name like "Honeydew from Heaven" or "Coiled Dragon in a Mist Grasping Purple Pearl."

Although tree peonies like to bask in abundant sunlight, the blossoms last longer if shaded. In China, individual plants in bloom are temporarily shaded beneath paper umbrellas, an amenity my tree peony thus far lacks.

Despite these deficiencies, my plant is glorious in bloom, and a first step into the world of those "other peonies."

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