Peonies are a sentimental garden favorite whose luscious — almost lascivious — flowers never fail to conjure up memories of other Springs, other gardens. What I love about peonies is also what I hate about them: these beauties can’t seem to hold their blowzy heads up, even in the best of weather.
Though many gardeners seem unaware of them, there are other kinds of peonies which don’t have this problem. I’m not talking about tree peonies which literally grow into a woody, small tree with dinner-plate size flowers. I mean the progeny of wild peonies from Japan, Turkey, Mongolia, the Himalayas and other romantic locations. Sometimes they’re also referred to as species, mountain or woodland peonies.
Paeonia obvata willmottiae, of Chinese origin, has cerise pink flowers that glow against its crisp green foliage.
Whatever you call them, these peonies are members of a complex family and I find it’s easy to get confused, if not entirely lost, when trying to figure out their parentage and origins. Suffice it to say that most of these are very early blooming, herbaceous peonies that die back each year just like the more well-known border peonies (Paeonia lactiflora). But many of these peonies can take a bit of shade, like that at the edge of a woodland.
Most are single flowered with petals that are silky with a faint crinkled edge reminiscent of the deckle on handmade paper. They range in color from white through mauve to pink and intense reds.
This woodland peony, Paeonia obvata var. alba, emerges with bronze foliage.
I’m currently growing five varieties: Paeonia anomala, P. japonica, P. obvata var. alba, P. obvata willmottiae, and P. vetchii. The obvatas and japonica (planted in 2006) all flowered for the first time in the spring of 2008; all on May 7th. The anomala and vetchii plants are still too young to flower; they need at least another year to mature.
Paeonia obvata var. alba
I’m still very much in the process of learning about these plants. For example, one article that I read noted that Paeonia obvata var. alba is often confused with P. japonica which has similar flowers but blooms later. I definitely agree that the flowers are similar but both my japonica and obvata bloomed at the same time this year and last. In fact, they opened at practically the same instant.
Paeonia japonica in bud.
The flowers of both are ethereally beautiful but the leaves of Paeonia obvata var. alba are extraordinary. They emerge the most amazing soft copper color and stay that way until just after the plant blooms. Now they are slowly turning to green which is the color the leaves of all my other peonies have been from the first.
But as beautiful as the leaves and flowers are, the obvata seed pods are a brilliant blue-black and as Klehm's Song Sparrow catalog notes they “glisten against a red backdrop.” Quite a spectacle, I can assure you!
The petals of Paeonia japonica flowers are silky white with a faint crinkled edge.
Alas, you will have to do a little searching to find these peonies. Even the Klehm family, who have been breeding peonies for generations, only offer a couple of varieties of such peonies — and then not every year. In 2007 they had P. japonica and P. obvata in their Song Sparrow catalog and on their Web site, but I could not find either of them listed this year.
Plant Delights Nursery, another of my favorite sources for interesting and unusual plants via the mail, has P. japonica and two varieties of P. obvata in their 2009 offerings.
I’ve discovered most of these less common peonies at Seneca Hill Perennials, a nursery in Oswego, N.Y. with a terrific assortment of plants. For example, the 2009 catalog (available on-line only) lists 6 Hepaticas, 17 Cyclamen (a particular specialty), and about two dozen species peonies. For many of its listings, Seneca Hill offers younger and smaller plants that make for an economical purchase. Your credit card takes less of a hit but the catch is that you may have to wait a couple of years for these plants to attain flowering size.
Paeonia obvata var. alba (both photos directly above)
Prices, being tied to size and age of plants, also vary widely. My 2005 Seneca Hill P. vetchii cost $8 and the anomalas were $12 each. The 2006 P. obvata var. alba was $10 from Seneca Hill while Klehm’s P. obvata cost $29.95. It is worth noting that both plants are of a similar size now and both bloomed for the first time the same year.
Paeonia obvata var. alba (above) and Paeonia japonica (below) going to seed.
My advice is to simply go looking to see what you can find and then buy what you like. I’m completely smitten with these beauties whose delicate looks belie their hardiness. I can’t do better than turn to Reginald Farrer who captured these unsung plants so perfectly, “Let all those peonies that are too wild and small to cope with the bloated beauties of the border, have their acknowledged place in the garden, in some fitting corner of deep hollow or high cool ledge.”
Don’t despair if you have neither hollows nor ledges. My peonies are doing just fine at the edge of a clump of old Austrian pine trees and a young Washington Hawthorn.
Parts of this column about species peonies previously appeared under my byline in The Capital Times.