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Peonies For Our Mild Marin Climate

  • Jane Scurich
  • My childhood memories are filled with vivid floral images as my Dad was a horticulturist and deeply involved in the landscape of my childhood home of Memphis, Tennessee. Dad’s absolute favorite flower was the peony. In Memphis, a near ideal combination of winter freeze and warm springs nurtured our profusely blooming peony garden. I fondly remember my Dad wading into the morning dew to clip a gorgeous collection of dinner plate size, fragrant blooms which he placed in my bicycle basket to deliver to my teacher.

    When I settled in my Mill Valley home, I assumed that I would reconstruct the garden of my memories. Like many transplants, I arrived in lush California and assumed that everything would thrive and flourish in our utopian state. It didn’t occur to me that some plants actually require a period of winter cold in order to set buds. Over the years, I have learned that peonies, lilacs and tulips, to name a few, are not fond of our mild winters and beg for a chill.
    Currently, I have one very beautiful, but definitely demanding, deep pink, peony. I purchased it in bloom from a local nursery some ten years ago. Each spring it delivers lovely, deep green, lacey foliage—and I wait, and hope, for profuse blooms—or any blooms. Some years, I establish a schedule and each evening from Thanksgiving to President’s Day I deliver ice cubes to the ground where my peony lies sleeping. And some years, I forget … and my peony forgets to bloom!
    So, this year I decided to put a bit of time into researching peonies that might have a fighting chance to bloom in our temperate climate. Fall is the ideal planting time to establish perennials, but unfortunately, I did not realize that it would be difficult to locate a local source for peonies. I spoke with many locally owned nurseries and learned that few people are interested in purchasing a plant that is not terribly attractive this time of year. One spokesperson suggested that while the peony should be planted “when it looks ugly,” it’s a tough sell. So, to purchase locally, you will need to wait until the plants arrive in early spring as they are awakening from their dormancy.
    There are two main types of peonies: the herbaceous peony, native to Asia, southern Europe and western North America, is the most well known and frequently grown, and the tree peony, which is a national favorite in its native China. The herbaceous peony dies back to the ground each winter, whereas the tree peony (actually more of a shrub to five feet tall) is deciduous and retains its bare canes throughout the winter. Although grafted on herbaceous stock, the growth and flowering habit of the tree peony is quite different and does not require a significant winter chill.
    Most herbaceous peonies need a minimum of 400 winter hours under 40°F. Sunset Magazine suggests ten peonies that are less cold needy and have shown promise to bloom in our Mediterranean climate: ‘Charlie’s White,’ ‘Claire De Lune,’ ‘Coral Charm,’ ‘Coral Supreme,’ ‘Eventide,’ ‘Festiva Maxima,’ ‘Late Windflower,’ ‘Miss America,’ ‘Red Charm’ and ‘Roselette.’ I also found ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ and ‘Felix Supreme’ recommended for temperate climates. I was able to locate most all of these cultivars available for fall shipping from http://www.dutchgardens.com, http://songsparrow.com or http://www.whiteflowerfarm.com.
    Tree peonies are also available from these same online sources and most all of the cultivars should grow nicely in our area.
    Patience is definitely a virtue when it comes to peonies. Even if you do provide an ideal location, it may take two to three years for the herbaceous variety to bloom and possibly more for the tree peony to become established and reach its full potential. It is not uncommon to find older gardens where peony beds have been reblooming for more than 50 years. The plants have few pests, are relatively drought resistant once established, prefer not to be moved or divided and ask very little of you beyond choosing the correct variety for your location and planting it in rich, well draining soil with full sun to partial shade. In mild climates, plant herbaceous peonies growth buds (or “eyes”) no more than one inch below the soil surface and do not mulch in winter. One common fable suggests that ants must swarm a peony in order for the blooms to open. Actually, while ants are highly attracted to the sweet nectar of the peony, they do not influence the bloom process.
    To view these magnificent plants in all their glory, mark your 2009 calendar for visits to Filoli and Paeonia Gardens. Filoli Gardens, http://www.filoli.org, is situated in a cool valley basin in Woodside and both herbaceous and tree peonies flourish there. Visit in early March to catch the tree peonies at their prime and in later March and April to enjoy the herbaceous peonies.
    Paeonia Garden and Nursery offers two acres of blooming beauty with more than 1400 peonies featuring some 120 varieties. The Zen-like garden situated in a low bowl which helps hold the cold, is a labor of love for Dr. Paul Campion. The garden is open to the public on weekends from mid-April to mid-May. Visit the website   http://www.paeoniagardens.com or call ahead 707 823-6600 to verify the dates and times it will be open in 2009. Paeonia Gardens, located at 190 Montgomery Road in Sebastopol, is dedicated to the popularization and acclimatization of the various forms of peony.