Paeonies from seed

I check the pots every day. Nothing yet. Perhaps they’ll need a spell in the chill of the fridge to encourage the seed to come up. It was a near miss; in the general panic to try and keep the garden at least partly under control, the seed pods had been forgotton, and the exciting day rushing round trying to make new hybrid paeonies wasted. Yet, a scrabble in the weeds beneath the branches yielded a couple of dozen big, fat, brown seeds. Some had been gnawed, others neatly holed, but a handful seem to be in reasonable shape. Hence the excitement.

Alas, the parent plants, both the amazing (well, horrible, if you’re in the wrong mood) moutan paeonies, with their gaunt twiggy shapes, and flowers frilly enough to defeat the wildest ballroom-dancing queen, as well as the infinitely more refined species, are too big too move. Yet the next garden, to be a jungle but not a jumble, needs just that sort of open, yet highly structured, shrub to give form beneath the apple trees, and above the tangles of daylilies, ferns, epimediums, climbing monkshoods, and the rest.

Fortunately, the biggest of the paeony bushes, the exciting yellow flowered Paeonia lutea (planted beneath the yard’s double gean tree), had anyway a few seedlings of its own production amongst the geraniums and irises that clothe the ground beneath it. They should be the pure thing. Lovely. Native to China and Tibet, it will eventually get to six or seven feet, with rather narrow and shanky growth, each slightly branched stem topped from April to mid-May with a clusters of wonderfully architectural yellow-green leaves, the leaflets cut into narrowing waved lobes. The flowers, out as you read this, are a rich lemon yellow, slightly scented of lilies.

In the usual species, these are about three inches across. That’s more than enough, though there is a more robust form, called ‘Ludlowii’, and even an astonishing hybrid called ‘Chromatella’, with frilly double flowers (it’s a hybrid I’ve tried to duplicate between P. lutea and P. suffruticosa – the ‘moutan’). But Paeonia lutea also crosses merrily with P. delavayi, and some of our precious seed is crossed with that – a lovely thing, introduced in 1908, similar in form to the yellow one, but with flowers of the most extraordinary red, varying rather from the scarlet of sweet cherries, right into the rich maroons of a ripe morello. The leaf lobes are narrower and tighter, and with a more geometrical look. At this time of year they’re a fine pinky green. Some hybrids are already in the garden here, with apple green foliage, and quantities of flowers that can be strawberry pink to some wonderful ambers and coppers, even ones yellow centred, flushing to bronze at the margins.

Some of the new seed should be hybrids between these, both back into the red P. delavayi, and on into the yellow P. lutea. How could it get forgotten? We’ve not yet decided what to do with the ancient flamboyants. One has a couple of buds the size of biggish apples, and in an alarming shade of plummy cerise; they will open into flowers about a foot across. Umm… Many Paeonia suffruticosa varieties are so old that it’s not known how they originated. The species was so anciently cultivated in China, that a garden variety register was begun in 700 A.D. to keep track of them, and there were said to be thirty-nine garden varieties by the tenth century. They were, understandably, symbols of great prosperity, if not high taste.

When Khublai Khan (son of Jenghiz), conquered China, he fell for them, and they began to diffuse westwards throughout his domains, first to the Middle East, then to eastern Europe. Even so, the first successful introduction into Britain seems to have been around 1790. There are few disadvantages to either those or the fine species. Their open growth makes them perfectly good props for other things, perhaps some of the smaller clematis species, and of course, they’re perfect over a luxurious ground planting. Try them with easy Iris sibirica, even the remarkable I. chrysographes, with flowers in deep plum, sometimes so deep as to be black. Between the paeony bushes, try the startling foliage of I. pseudacorus, flowers in buttercup and ochre yellow, or in pale yellow: very grand. Otherwise all is advantage: they’re tough and cold hardy – though late frosts, if violent, are supposed to damage young growth. Paeonia lutea seems to do with us in vile soil, and P. delavayi and the various hybrids are as tolerant. ! Moutans like rather more feeding. All do well in an unlikely range of light levels – we have some up in the hottest and sunniest part of the walled garden, looking indistinguishable from ones in almost permanent shade. A wonderful group.


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