Peonies in the garden

Three weeks before spring officially arrives, precious moisture from the recent accumulated ice and sleet is melting under cloudy skies and warming temperatures. A few bright red sprouts of the slumbering peonies in our yard are breaking through the soil amidst dwindling patches of ice. It seems a little early but I never worry about these hardy plants. They will bloom spectacularly again this May in their coveted sunny spot by the sidewalk for all to admire. A fresh-cut bouquet of these fragrant flowers will enhance our kitchen for the 26th consecutive spring.

Recently I read Peony: The Best Varieties for Your Garden to learn about these peonies we inherited from the previous homeowners. This beautifully engaging book is well organized with a brief history of peonies along with planting and care instructions. Each descriptive flower entry is accompanied by a photograph. If you need a gift for a gardener friend or are looking for new color to add to your garden, take a peek at this new book.

There are types of peony floral groups established by the American Peony Society called forms. These types are single, Japanese, anemone, bomb, semidouble and double. The white peonies in our yard–some flecked with burgundy—resemble the Festiva Maxima, a large and fragrant double peony. They are also herbaceous or bush peonies. Bush peonies grow about the size of a small shrub, die to the ground for the winter and return the following spring.

Topekan Myron Bigger was an internationally recognized peony grower whose varieties are still sold. Bigger won the American Peony Society’s Gold Medal in 1957 for his spectacular red double peony he named “Kansas,” which is portrayed in Michener and Adelman’s book. Bigger’s “Topeka Garnet,” a single form red peony, won the same award in 2012. His “Shawnee Chief” is an extraordinary double red flower with buds Bigger said resemble a rose. I shared this local history with a coworker who enthusiastically recommended a recent Sunflower Journeys episode, Flowers and Farms featuring Mr. Bigger’s creations. Some of his varieties were planted recently with identifying markers at the Ward-Meade botanical gardens.

An arrangement of fresh cut peonies from your garden this spring is easy to assemble. Michener and Adelman recommend cutting stems during the coolest time of day and when the bud feels like a “soft large marshmallow or when the first petal moves away from the bud.” Remove foliage that will be underwater, and recut the stem underwater when it’s put in the vase. Place the bouquet out of direct sunlight.

For more garden inspiration, photograph blooming peonies this spring that you find especially appealing and may want to add to a sunny spot in your yard this fall. Visit the Lawn and Garden Neighborhood inside the library,  The American Peony Society and K-State Research and Extension for more answers to your peony questions.

Kimberly Sain

As a Public Services Specialist, in addition to Reference work I promote the Travel and Lawn & Garden Neighborhoods and coordinate nature-themed programs for adults and families. My interests include hiking and exploring National Parks, Alaska, birding, Sandhill crane migration, Monarch waystations, Kansas native plants, citizen science projects, and volunteer work as a certified Extension Master Naturalist. Peter Matthiessen's Shadow Country is my all-time favorite novel.