I wish you could smell the fragrance of this bloom. Just one on my kitchen table makes me smile; a vase-full practically makes me giddy.
This is Peony ‘festiva maxima,” an old variety introduced in the 1850’s. It’s been popular for generations because of its fragrance and for its four-inch, pure-white double blossoms that are flecked with crimson.
To me, it looks like an artist spilled paint onto the whitest of palettes. There’s perfection in such randomness — the streak through the petal’s center, the outline of crimson on its edge.
Peony ‘festiva maxima needs staking, because the stems will arch toward the ground as the blossoms open and they can be driven into the ground by a hard rain (like the one we got last night). Rain always gives me a good excuse to cut the newly opening blossoms and bring them in to my kitchen. (Blooms that are just opening will last longer than if you cut blooms that are already open.)
If you have peonies you’ve probably seen the ants running in and out of the petals. Ants love peonies; they’re attracted to the waxy outer coating of the blossom which I guess is sweet, but they won’t harm the plant. The only thing the ants will harm is dinnertime if you don’t rinse the flowers before you put them on the table. You can even dip the entire flower into water to shake off any unwanted hitchhikers.
Peonies are hardy in Zones 3-8 and need full sun and neutral to slightly sweet soil. My Connecticut garden soil tends to be acidic, so I add a handful of lime in the fall. These are strong stemmed plants that grow 34 to 36 inches tall. They flower early, but their glossy foliage lasts all season, and can almost be used like a shrubby hedge.
Lee Valley Tools makes the best peony hoops I’ve found. I’ve had mine for 15 years and they’re almost indestructible. They’re expensive (almost $40 each for the large size), but my plants are tall and wide, and these hoops are adjustable and stable even during strong winds and rain.
Want more information? The American Peony Society has a good q&a page on its website.
Enjoy your peonies. Now I’m going outside to bring in a few more from the rain.