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Cosentino: An appreciation of peonies

Cosentino: An appreciation of peonies

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Drive anywhere in Auburn these days and you are sure to be greeted with a fantastic show of color in the yards and gardens of many, many homes. The peony is a very versatile plant. They stand alone, they are the foundation plantings in front and side yards, they are the hedges. And what makes it even more interesting is the range in color, size of flower and shape of the bloom. The shapes can include single, the double, the anemone, Japanese and semi-double flowers. And last, but not least, the most beautiful of all is an all-white, single-flowered tree peony. One of these just finished blooming in my garden, The flowers were outstanding, they were a single row of petals eight inches across, with a cluster of bright yellow stamens right in the center.

Basically, different types come from the northern hemisphere from different parts of the world, primarily from Asia, around the northern Mediterranean and western North America. It seems that there are only about 33 actual species, but thousands upon thousands of named crosses. They have been in cultivation for hundreds of years. Peonies are included in the religious rites of many cultures, ancient and modern.

Cut peony flowers do have a problem. Ants love them, as a home and as food. Personally, if I pick them in my garden, I soak the flowers in a pail of water before bringing them into the house. And for a florist they can be a nightmare because they are shipped in from distant places and we have to take special care, especially when being used for a wedding. Can you just imagine the disaster of a bride walking down the aisle and seeing a parade of ants walking up her arm? Fortunately, any florist worth his salt would take precautions to see that this did not happen. But ... just imagine.

Let’s talk about growing peonies. First of all it is too late to begin growing from scratch this year. Buying roots in mid-June will yield poor results. But if you do want to get started, I have seen some very nice plants in gallon containers at the home improvement stores and area garden centers. Sure, it is a bit more expensive, but it will get you started and excited about them so that in the fall you can start buying dormant plants, set them in the right situation and see some results next year and a whole lot more in coming years. A plant in the right spot can give decades of enjoyment.

This plant prefers a sunny location. Perhaps that is why they do so well as single plants and hedges out in the open and away from tree cover. They love a well-drained soil. Good air circulation is important to prevent a plant disease called botrytis. Perhaps, this is why hedges and single plants do better than foundation plantings. This disease is in most soils and is only a problem if the weather is cool and wet, or the soil is soggy or if there are infected plants nearby. If you see the disease on a plant, remove that plant or at least the infected flowers and branches and toss them into the trash, never on the compost pile. You do not want it to get into every potful you use.

Peonies rarely bloom the first year after planting and yield just a few, normally rather small blossoms the second year. By the third your will have a fantastic show that will get better every year. With proper care, your plant will reward you with beautiful garden color year after year and with blossoms that will brighten any and every room in your home.

Annually give your plants an application of all purpose fertilizer and a top dressing of compost or even peat moss. If you plan on mulching, keep the mulch away from the base of the plants. If you get too close with the mulch, the plant will react as if you planted it too deep and will punish you by producing few flowers.

Finally, a special thanks to Ed, who read my plight last week in finding zinnia plants. He had been having the same problem, so he sowed seeds and got great germination and an abundance of plants. He called and shared some plants with me. Thanks, Ed.

Be well!

Carmen Cosentino operates Cosentino's Florist with his daughter, Jessica. He was elected to the National Floriculture Hall of Fame in 1998, and in 2008, received the Tommy Bright award for lifetime achievements in floral education. In 2016, Carmen and Jessica were presented Teleflora's Tom Butler Award, naming Cosentino's the florist of the year at the company's annual meeting in Hawaii. Carmen can be reached at or (315) 253-5316. 


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