TREE PEONIES, AN EXCITING ADVENTURE
A. P. Saunders Hamilton College, Clinton, New York
American Peony Society Bulletin No. 92, Dec. 1943
An invitation to write about tree peonies is to me' one not to be declined. I always have the hope that perhaps one or two of my readers may believe what I say, and be stirred by a desire to have a few of these beautiful plants in their garden. And when once you have seen a fine tree peony in bloom you will never again be happy without them.
It is not as if tree peonies belonged in the rank and file of good garden plants of which in so many cases you can very well say: "I can take them or leave them." I could for my own taste make a very long list of such, and it would include most of the annuals and a large proportion of the standard perennials. But the tree peony belongs with the few real aristocrats among flowering plants -things that no self-respecting garden can be without. I would put in this group besides the tree peonies, French lilacs large-flowered clematis, magnolias, azeleas (if your soil permits), some of the nobler narcissus, a few of the irises, hybrid delphiniums, and of course roses. You could make a garden of these alone, and what a garden! Nothing inferior in it! There are other plants I happen to love, some of the Philadelphus for instance; but I can understand that someone else might be indifferent to them. Not so with the tree peonies. No one who has any appreciation of beauty can look at a fine tree peony bloom without a deep thrill.
The herbaceous peonies, the ordinary peonies of our gardens, are handsome plants, and their flowers in many cases have great beauty, but lovely as they are, they make you feel when they are put beside a noble bloom of a tree peony that what they aspire to the tree peony has achieved. Great size, ideal perfection of texture and form, wonderful color over a wide range from white to almost black through all the loveliest pinks and redsall these the tree peony has. Oh, I don't say that all tree peonies are beautiful in color. Some of them, particularly among the varieties of European origin come in those shades of lilac pink that we could so happily live without. Therefore, in selecting varieties of tree peonies for purchase, if you cannot choose from among blooming plants in a nursery, you will do well to choose those with Japanese names rather than the French ones; for the varieties of Chinese or Japanese origin which come to us under Japanese names are likely to be the clearer colors.
The tree peony is Chinese in origin and has been loved and cherished in Chinese gardens for more than a thousand years. It came to Europe about a hundred and fifty years ago, and from there to America. In China it is called the King of Flowers. I don't know what should be called the King of Flowers in America, but I have a terrible suspicion it would have to be the Petunia. What a comedown'.
In spite of the enthusiasm of those who know and appreciate the tree peony, it has never taken hold with the great gardening public. This is due partly I think to the fact that one does not often see a fine collection of tree peonies, such collections being few and far between. There are magnificent collections at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and at Highland Park in Rochester, New York. Otherwise, one would have to go to private gardens or to the few nurseries where these plants are grown in any considerable number. Another fact against the tree peony is that it has a bad name among professional gardeners. They are liable to tell you that it is difficult and uncertain. Uncertain it is, in the sense that plants do sometimes die. I have something like one or two thousand tree peonies, and it is true that I lose a few each year; but not more, I feel sure, than I should in a planting of an equal number of roses. Yet no one will discourage you from growing roses on the argument that you may occasionally lose one. As for the difficulty of growing tree peonies, they ask no more care than most other hardy perennials. I have a severe winter climate near the Adirondack Mountains and my tree peonies come through most winters with little or no protection and with very little damage. I don't think I have ever had a plant winter-killed, though they do often lose some of the buds on the ends of the branches.
The tree peony is a shrub, growing here some three feet high; and if the top most buds are winterkilled the plant will develop flowers from the buds farther down the stems. I do not know how much the tree peony would enjoy the severe winters of northern Minnesota, but at the Cottage Gardens Nursery in Lansing, Michigan, there is a large stock of tree peony plants which were in great health when I saw them in June, and, therefore, cannot have suffered any considerable damage from the preceding winter.
Twenty-five years ago very few nurseries carried a line of tree peonies; but I am glad to say that the demand for them is on the increase and there are now several nurseries which carry good stocks. I would mention beside the Cottage Gardens alluded to to above, the Oberlin Peony Gardens, Sinking Spring, Penna.; Mr. William Gratwick, Linwood, New York; Mr. John C. Wister, Germantown, Penna.; The Farr Nurseries, Weiser Park, Penna. All of these are more or less specialists, but several of the large general nurseries also carry a few varieties of tree peonies, though your choice with them is necessarily more limited.
The plants must be multiplied by grafting, and as this is a slow and uncertain process, prices on these plants are higher than for the herbaceous kinds which are multiplied by division. But tree peonies are not expensive for the pleasure to be had from them; and if you are in the mood for adventure I would suggest that you buy a single or semi-double white as a starter. I have had dozens of single whites among my seedlings and never one that was not a beauty.
Just one piece of specific advice I would give if you are moved to purchase a tree peony. Do not buy either the variety BANKSI nor the single purple offered under the name MOUTAN. BANKSI is a mauve pink double, poor in color, uninteresting in form, and generally inferior. It does bear an abundance of flowers, but under the circumstances I do not consider that a merit. MOUTAN is a single purplish red, to my eye a bad color.
In Southern China there is another wild shrubby peony which came into culture a little before 1890. It bears small flowers of a bright buttercup yellow color and is called PAEONIA LUTEA. There is a closely related form, P. DELAVAYI in which the blooms are dark mahogany red.
As soon as P. LUTEA had reached the blooming stage in France where the first seedlings were raised the great Lemoine began to make crosses between this plant and the Chinese tree peonies. The results appeared after some years in the production of a grand new race of large-flowered peonies in which the predominant color was yellow. L'ESPERANCE, La LORRAINE, SOUVENIR de MAXIM CORNUthese were the first named varieties to be offered to the public. These plants opened up an entirely new vista in peony culture. M. Lemoine has continued his breeding experiements and has since 1906 introduced about a dozen! new and striking novelties. But in spite of the exciting possibilities in this race of hybrids no work i has been done in that direction in Europe in more recent years except by Lemoine himself, and all the hybrids that have been made in this country are found in my own garden.
Here in this cross is a veritable gold mine for any plant breeder, and I hope it will not be long before at least a few intelligent hybridists will devote some attention to these crosses. Their range of color includes clear yellows from pale to deep golden, yellows more or less stained with reddish, rods in many shades, deep maroons, whites, and among the newest of my own hybrids a few in which pale pink is laid on to a background of yellow.
The flowers are often of very large size and vary from singles to full doubles. Their season is a little later than the tree peonies; these begin to bloom here in northern New York about May 25; the lutea hybrids begin about June 1st, and the ordinary Chinese herbaceous peonies about June 10.
P. LUTEA is easily raised from seed and blooms on quite young plants. The tree peonies are not so easy, requiring some special care; but anyone who wants to develop a large collection of tree peonies can, if he knows how, get a group of magnificent varieties by growing seedlings of a fine strain. Only what he saves in money he will spend in time, for tree peonies do not usually bloom until they have had five or six seasons of growth. But whether the bill is paid in money or time, a bed of fine tree peonies cannot fail to be worth all it has cost.