Hartley Magazine

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Peonies Now and Forever—Every garden deserves a king

Image 2 - April 2017
Image by Seattle Chinese Garden

It’s time for flower festivals! These once-a-year celebrations allow gardeners to pick up rare and unusual plants, just at the moment when they really look good. And here comes the Peony and Bamboo Festival, on April 22 and 23, at the Seattle Chinese Garden.

This month I’m talking with Phil Wood, owner of Phil Wood Garden Design and co-chair of this yearly event that highlights tree peonies. These deciduous woody shrubs, Phil tells me, are revered in China as the king of flowers. They’ve been bred for well over a thousand years.

Tree peonies flourish in a wide range of growing zones. They can be started from seed in a greenhouse, and Phil notes that in China, the bloom time is often manipulated under glass. Outside, he says. “They’re earlier to bloom than the more familiar herbaceous peonies, and they have larger flowers.”

Despite their exotic background, tree peonies are easy care. Plant container-grown specimens in a permanent location (they resent transplanting) in good well-draining soil. They’ll take several growing seasons to settle, but once established, the exquisite shrubs will provide years of garden delight.

These showstoppers come in a wide variety of sumptuous blooms, including elegant singles or some with, “more exuberant petals than a can-can dancer’s skirt,” Phil says. “And they smell as good as they look.”

Here are six that will be available at the festival. And the best part? If you can’t make it to the Seattle Chinese Garden, you can find these beauties online. Search by their Chinese names, although some are also sold under English monikers.

Paonia ‘Feng Dan Bai’ – This 4-5-foot tall early spring bloomer is sometimes sold as Phoenix White. The 7-inch fragrant flowers feature a yellow center.

P. ‘Hai Huang’ – Also goes by the name High Noon. It’s a 5-by-5-foot shrub with upright yellow and red blossoms late in spring.

P. ‘Lan Bao Shi’ – This one is known as Blue Sapphire or Blue Jewel. Lightly fragrant violet-lavender flowers appear in midseason on a 4-6-foot-tall vigorous plant.

P. ‘Xiang Yu’ – Also known as Fragrant Jade, this 6-by-8-foot spreader has variegated leaves and double white flowers in midseason.

P. ‘Jin Ge’ – This 5-by-5-foot tree peony carries huge apricot orange blooms—up to 10 inches across—with ruffled edges on the petals.

P. ‘Jing Yu’ – At 5 by 4 feet, ‘Jing Yu’ is the smallest of stature in this selection, with white, fragrant, double flowers showing a hint of pink in mid-spring and handsome exfoliating bark.