Gardening is a field in which patience generally yields high reward. Unfortunately for me, waiting has never been my strong suit; as a child of the electronic age, anything less than immediate gratification seems unendurably long. Strangely, my salvation outdoors has taken the form of benign neglect. Often I’ll plant something, then get called away by the horticultural crisis of the moment, and promptly forget all about my charge. The hapless specimen, deprived of my attentions, is then left in peace, free from meddlesome prodding & poking, able to bide its own time. Given sufficient water and light and the gods’ good graces, events seem to proceed well without me. Certainly, that’s what happened with the gorgeous tree peony, ‘Hesperus’, you see above. I planted a scattering of different varieties six or seven years ago among the herbaceous peonies in the north border, where they have been perking along rather unremarkably – until this season. That’s not surprising, though. Tree peonies, whose name derives from the fact that their woody stems don’t die back to the ground in winter, are tremendously long-lived, often out lasting the gardener who planted them. It’s not unusual for tree peonies to take a half decade or more to begin to come into their own. Once they do, however, I think you’ll agree that the results are fairly spectacular.
For those of you who enjoy a bit of history with your gardening, few plants come with a richer pedigree – tree peonies have been in cultivation in China for thousands of years, and for a while during the T’ang dynasty (618-906), even came under Imperial protection – only the emperor could grow tree peonies in his garden. Nor was their appeal entirely cosmetic; in traditional Chinese medicine, the bark of tree peonies produces Mu Dan Pi, which is said to cool the blood, as well as having anti-bacterial properties. Eventually, as various Imperial dynasties came and went, courts arose in different cities, and the cultivation of tree peonies – always associated with the center of power – was spread throughout China, and subsequently to Japan, where the plant is equally revered.
For anyone sufficiently enthused by this post to want to add tree peonies to his or her garden, the good news is that tree peonies are very easy to grow, suffering from few complaints, preferring a rich, well drained soil in dappled shade. (In this, they are unlike their herbaceous cousins that require full sun.) The bad news is that tree peonies are costly: $50 is often the starting point for a bare root plant, with prices spiraling quickly upwards for rare varieties. Given the expense, you should choose your site well, and spend some extra time enriching the soil before planting. Like many long-lived souls, tree peonies resent change and prefer to grow old in one spot.
One final note: if you’ve a mind for plant names, you’ll quickly discover that the nomenclature of tree peonies is a bit confusing. Technically tree peonies belong to paeonia suffruticosa; but there are several other species, such as paeonia delavayi (our ‘Hesperus’ above), which are separate but also referred to as “tree peonies” in the vernacular. Add to this the transliteration from the Chinese, which often leads to cultivar names like ‘Green Dragon Lying on a China Ink Stone,’ and you can quickly get quite a mouthful, not to mention an impossibly complicated plant label. Don’t worry though. Absorb that “cooling blood” from the peony bark of old: just select a flower color and form you like; close your eyes while you hand over your credit card; then plant away, with PATIENCE.
With tree peonies, time brings sure rewards.