This time of year, landscapes here are a riot of color. In my garden, the dogwoods are blooming, the azaleas are ablaze, hydrangeas are leafing out in the richest of greens, and new leaves are appearing on my beloved skimmia that survived Snowmaggedon on my front hill.
One of the few types of plant I inherited from the previous owner of my house that still survive (we won’t speak of the hybrid tea roses that formerly “graced” my western border) are herbaceous peonies (Paeonia lactiflora) in shades that range from white (‘Festiva Maxima,’ I think) to pink and purplish-pink. They are long-lived and I adore them. Occasionally I feed them a dose of Epsom salts in the fall if I remember, in order to promote even more prolific spring blooms.
But when I became a plant fanatic, in my early days as a gardener, I discovered tree peonies (Paeonia suffruticosa). They are the national flower of China (once grown exclusively by the emperor), and are shrubby with woody stems. Slow growing but enduring, they may live over 100 years, taking decades to reach three to five feet in height.
Unlike herbaceous peonies, tree peonies can take a bit of shade, and even prefer it – an eastern exposure is ideal, and they like protection from winter winds. So several years ago, I ordered two different varieties of tree peonies from Cricket Hill Garden and they are now happily established on the eastern side of my garden. Here they are – first, ‘Colored Painting.’
The other, with a slightly more complicated moniker, is ‘Grand Duke Dressed in Purple and Blue.’ Kasha Furman, one of the owners of Cricket Hill Garden, the source for these two peonies of mine, says that in China this variety’s bloom color is in fact more purple-blue than what you see below. She thinks it has to do with soil pH. Whatever. I have no complaints!
As a photographer, I love photographing tree peonies in bloom. Here are two from a client’s garden a couple of years ago.
And here is my favorite photograph, of an unknown pink cultivar.
Alas, the blooms are fleeting. But they are so captivating, so sumptuous, that I find them irresistible. And although I have no photos of other-colored cultivars, they come in yellows, purple, maroon and green – colors rarely seen in their herbaceous cousins. Both single and double-flowered varieties are available. You need to be a bit patient and willing to splurge – tree peonies are expensive and may take a few years to establish. But as harbingers of spring, they are unsurpassed. Think about adding some to your semi-shady garden. You won’t be disappointed.