Rose-like peonies make big impact on garden
Peony flowers have a rose-like structure. Wild species have pretty bowl-shaped flowers with five to 10 petals, just like a single rose. The pollen-carrying stems may convert to petals, just as they do in roses, and the doubled flowers look very rose-like.
Despite having flowers of similar shape, these plants are not related, but the similarity does not end there. Both roses and peonies have a big impact on the garden, their large flowers dramatically lifting their surroundings, the peonies in early summer and the roses later on. And they both bring an atmospheric old-fashioned cottage-garden look.
In flower now, the most common kind of peony seen in gardens has dark-red flowers over deep-green, lush foliage, the flower heads often toppled over when wet. The flowers have a silky sheen, a rich lustre on the thick petals. There are often pink forms and white varieties too, though less often seen.
Apart from the old-fashioned double-flowered kinds, there are some lovely named varieties. 'Bowl of Beauty' has deep pink outer petals and a boss of cream-yellow slender petaloid stamens. 'Duchess de Nemours' is fully double white and 'Sarah Bernhardt' is fully double, frilly, and soft pink.
Peonies can be very long-lived and survive in gardens for many decades, if the soil drains well and is fertile. But they can be badly affected by shade. A little light shade for part of the day is fine but continuous shade can stop peonies from flowering and the plants eventually fade out.
It is common enough to see non-flowering clumps of peonies shaded by trees and shrubs that were just saplings when the peony was planted. Peony plants affected in this way can be lifted carefully and moved in early autumn or early spring before new growth begins. Peonies have thick tuberous roots very similar to those of dahlias, and they are easily damaged.
To flower well, the plant likes rich, fertile soil with plenty of organic matter, well-drained, but not too dry in summer. Old plants can be rejuvenated when moved, and flower again, but they dislike disturbance and can take a couple of years to adapt.
If they do not eventually begin to flower again after moving, the plants may have virus diseases and never again do well. Virus-affected plants have yellowish markings on the leaves. In a wet year, the round buds sometimes rot on the stem without opening. If this happens, cut away all remaining foliage in autumn and mulch with good well-rotted compost.