If I was forced to name my favourite flower, there’s a good chance it might be the peony. I love to see the red fronds of the herbaceous type pushing through the soil back to back together in their unearthly fashion around this time of year, full of promise for the season to come. And when their blooms appear – well, could you blame me for deserting the rose in favour of these?
Primrose Hall, a fixture at all the best UK flower shows, are currently teasing a sketch of their proposed 2019 Chelsea Flower Show design online. Arrangements of blooms tower over a garden of peonies. In the background, a garland tumbles down towards flowers floating in a traditional clawfoot bath. That’s my kind of outdoor bathroom!
The pictures I’m sharing here were taken on their stands at last year’s RHS Chatsworth and Hampton Court Flower Shows.
I had thought that there must be more than one peony here but as Primrose Hall’s Alec White, who kindly agreed to identify the peonies, observed, “Note that the corals change colour quite a lot as they mature!”.
Their shapes vary quite a lot too, from round buds, to deep, open chalice shapes and loose doubles with sheeny, ruffled petals.
Primrose Hall is a family-run nursery offering peonies that have been grown 3-5 years or more before being despatched. Compared to plants sold in 9cm pots, they might appear pricey, but by choosing premium plants you can expect a better display, more quickly. As a specialist nursery, they stock a wide choice of peonies, including some unusual specimens.
Their experts suggest that herbaceous peonies should be planted shallowly, making sure that the tuberous roots are just 2.5cm (an inch) or so below the surface. If your plant is flourishing and leafy, but does not flower, this could well be the reason.
Peonies are not particularly fussy about soil. Take the normal precautions you would when planting anything you’ll treasure, enriching the soil with organic material before planting and improving drainage if needed (e.g. in heavy clay) so the roots will not stay waterlogged. Give them a sunny spot to help them shine.
Peonies take time to mature, so don’t expect overnight results, but when happy, they can outlive us, producing a spectacular show each year, even when left pretty much to their own devices.
While they do not suit every climate, any English gardener who walks around their neighbourhood will know of at least one house where a peony has been growing for as long as they remember and, more likely, of several. My favourite is the unlikeliest: a peony in a tiny garden that is almost entirely swamped by a silver leaved shrub. Not letting its bedfellow overshadow it, the peony spills huge, frothy pink flowers into the street come early summer.
While peonies only flower once each year, their deeply lobed foliage is elegant as any fern, their seed heads attractive, and some varieties develop wonderful autumn colours. When they are in flower, their harshest critic would have to concede their blooms have it all: size, colour, form and fragrance.
Peonies are great for cutting, but Primrose Hall recommends that to help the plant bulk up, the flower stems should not be cut in their first year after planting – assuming you can resist.
Growing peony flowers for weddings, events and celebrations
If you are planning to grow flowers for a special event, peonies may top your wish list. It’s hard to guess how each season will unfold – as any gardener knows, nature’s compliance should never be taken for granted.
Plants that are already in place and thriving offer the best chance of success. If you still need to plant, choose the best established plants you can find, ask an expert grower to estimate the flowering window in your area and make sure your timescale is realistic. Always have a backup plan. And never hope to match living, ever-changing petal colours to a pantone reference. A fine flower like the peony deserves to be accorded tolerance.
While it may seem a risk to grow-your-own, when everything works out, oohs and aahs are guaranteed and you’ll have garden flowers every anniversary to commemorate the day.
Primrose Hall Contact Details
Address: Primrose Hall, Dingley Dell, Toddington Road, Westoning, Bedfordshire MK45 5AH
The nursery is open Monday to Friday, by appointment only.