Some of my favourite peonies

Judith Adam

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‘Jan van Leeuwen’ peony has a lemon scent. (Photo by Brendan Adam-Zwelling)
‘Jan van Leeuwen’ peony has a lemon scent. (Photo by Brendan Adam-Zwelling)
‘Jan van Leeuwen’ peony has a lemon scent. (Photo by Brendan Adam-Zwelling)

I’ve been rattling boxes in the garage, looking for the peony rings. It’s time to get these supports in place now that the soil is soft and drained, and before the peonies send their dark stems upward. Sometimes I miss the moment, and then there’s no way of weaving the stems and foliage into the frames without damage.

Did you see Patrick Lima’s article about reliable peonies in the spring 2012 issue of Garden Making? He leads me to reflect on those I’ve grown, and realize some are more pleasing than others. For instance, deep red ‘Karl Rosenfield’ didn’t stay long in my garden. It’s a popular cultivar and always available in nurseries, but I didn’t like the loose petal arrangement that made the flowers appear lax as they aged. I replaced it with ‘Kansas’ (, a watermelon red, fully double flower that has won several awards and makes lots of tightly packed blooms. Peonies need a generous area for their thick clumps of foliage, and I want them to earn it.

My current favourite is ‘Jan van Leeuwen’, a stout single anemone form with blazing white outer petals and a lush tuft of yellow staminoides in the centre. The flowers need no support, last three weeks on the plant (opening widely in sun and closing at night), and are beautiful in a vase paired with a broad hosta leaf. Many peonies are perfumed, and ‘Jan van Leeuwen’ is loaded with a distinctive lemon scent.

I have two sentimental favourites, both bred in the 19th century, and each came to my garden in a personalized way. A neighbour was an avid plantsman and in 1950, planted his own garden and the lot that I would eventually own many years later. All my tall coniferous trees were his gifts, as well as a ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ peony. ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ is named after the French actress and courtesan, and the flower lives up to her legend with thickly packed, apple blossom pink petals that are silver tipped and often have carmine red flecks. She’s a real beauty!

Another sentimental favourite is ‘Mikado’, a single flower with ruffled, rosy carmine petals and a thick centre of dark red staminoides, each brilliantly edged and tipped with gold. It’s an impressive flower, and the tall plant blooms for several weeks. I rescued this peony from a neighbouring garden that was about to be demolished, leaping over the fence at the last minute with a shovel to save just one beautiful specimen. ‘Mikado’ was introduced at the Japanese exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, and was celebrated as the most beautiful peony ever bred in Japan. I couldn’t let that legend fall under the bulldozers!

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1 thought on “Some of my favourite peonies”

  1. I’m interested in growing tree peonies. I’m in zone 6b Nevada,north Lake Tahoe. Is this even possible to grow tree peonies there? Thanks for the advice . Teresa Buck


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