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Peonies naturally occur in the temperate and colder regions of the entire northern hemisphere— across Asia and Europe and in the western part of North America.
There are over thirty naturally-occurring species of peonies. These are all members of the genus Paeonia and thus genetically related.
The majority of peonies are herbaceous perennials (meaning they die back to the ground each winter), but a few have woody stems (enabling them to remain above ground throughout the year.)
The people of China have nurtured and cultivated peonies for over two thousand years. Originally they used peonies as a flavoring for food. But since the time of the elegant Tang dynasty (618-907), they bred peonies for their beautiful flowers and grew them in the imperial courts of China.
Then, about a thousand years ago, the people of Japan also took a liking to growing peonies for their beautiful flowers. And finally, in the eighteenth century, peony cultivation and breeding took hold in both England and France.
Because the naturally-occurring peony species are genetically related, it means many of them can easily be crossed with one another. So, over the years, hybridizers have produced thousands of different ‘cultivated varieties’—or cultivars—all the plants that today we call ‘peonies’.
Most peony cultivars are herbaceous and typically grow about three feet high and up to four feet wide, with blooms up to eight inches in diameter. However there are also a number of beautiful woody-stemmed peony shrubs that stay above ground in the winter and are called ‘tree peonies’. These grow about five feet high and are highly prized for their sumptuous blossoms up to a foot across.
Toichi Itoh was a skilled Japanese plant breeder and in the 1940’s Itoh experimented with cross-fertilizing tree and herbaceous peonies. The outcome was a totally new class of peony, the lovely ‘intersectionals’ or ‘Itoh hybrids’.
Although Itoh hybrids die back in winter like their herbaceous peony parentage, they have also inherited the enormous blooms and finely divided leaves from their tree peony parentage.
Itoh Peonies like 'Scarlet Heaven' are the result of a cross between garden peonies and tree peonies. While many Itoh peonies on the market today are bred in a lab via tissue culture, American Meadows only carries naturally-propagated, bare root Itoh peonies. Bare root Itohs will establish themselves in the garden sooner, and produce flowers earlier in life than lab-raised Itohs.
Single peonies, such as ‘Krinkled White” have one or two whorls of broad over-lapping petals surrounding a central mass of yellow stamens. These are the sophisticates of the peony world.
Semi double peonies, like Coral Charm, have three or four whorls of petals but the central mass of stamens is still easily visible.
Double peonies, such as ‘Sarah Bernhardt’, ‘Shirley Temple’ ‘Felix Crousse’ and ‘Karl Rosenfield’ offered by American Meadows, have sumptuous spherical flowers that are completely filled with numerous overlapping petals. Some blooms have more than a hundred petals!
Japanese or Anemone form peonies —including ‘Bowl of Beauty’ offered by American Meadows—have one or more rows of large outer petals surrounding a mass of miniature petals called petaloids.
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Back in 1923 the American Peony Society started awarding the society’s Gold Medal to peony cultivars that the committee considered truly outstanding—a tradition continued almost every year since. As a result, as of 2016, fifty-six peony cultivars are now designated Gold Medal Recipients. See the impressive list here.
Some gardeners become completely smitten by peonies and it becomes a lifelong passion. They collect peonies that show off the different forms, from single, semi-double, double and the Japanese or anemone form. A few may even try their hands at breeding their own new cultivars.
Before long their whole year revolves around that precious month in early summer when the peonies bloom!
Bill Countryman was one such peony collector. Always a naturalist and environmentalist, in 1991 at age 71, Bill decided to follow his true passion and create an outstanding peony collection on his farm, which was nestled in the hills above Northfield, Vermont.
Within a decade, and supported by his loving wife Anne, Bill had amassed a world-class peony collection with over 1500 different peony cultivars including every Gold Medal recipient to date.
Sadly in June 11, 2005, at the age of 84 Bill Countryman passed away, just days before the prestigious American Peony Society was scheduled to hold its annual meeting at his farm.
As testament to Bill’s stature in the world of peonies, a large group of his friends—both master gardeners and professional horticulturists— devoted an entire day to tiding the peony beds so that the American Peony Society could hold their meeting as scheduled.
Today, every June the breathtakingly beautiful display of peonies at Bill's farm continues to delight all who visit.
About the Author: Judith Irven is an accomplished Vermont landscape designer and garden writer, and she delights in helping people everywhere create beautiful gardens. You can visit her online at: OutdoorSpacesVermont.com.
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