Flower fashion is being set for the season right now at Chelsea Flower Show, the world’s foremost horticultural event. Plant breeders and nurserymen vie with each other to produce the best displays and promote their finest new varieties. Garden designers painstakingly create stunning mini landscapes just for the week. Celebrities mingle, attempting to outshine the dazzling displays. Garden pundits air their opinions on what is in and what is out in the garden world.
Some plants always seem to feature though. The timing of the show and the opulent and abundant beauty of Peony flowers have made them a regular there for the past century. But, they have been prized and cherished around the world for a lot longer than that. Legend has it that many years ago in ancient China, it was only the emperor that could own the magnificent tree peony. Fortunately that is now a privilege we can all enjoy.
Peonies actually come in two forms. The more commonly seen herbaceous types shoot up from the ground each season and the tree types which produce a woody framework. Don’t expect towering giants with the latter though- six to eight foot high shrubs are more on the mark. Whichever type is chosen, these long lived plants will reward with the most gorgeous flowering display through May and into June.
There are some natural species with more restrained single flowers, but it is the highly bred, spectacular double blooms that once seen are never forgotten. Almost indecently glamorous, they range in colour from deep ruby, crimson and scarlet through various shades of pink to white, often with a dramatic boss of yellow stamens in the centre. These luxuriantly rich flowers can be vast, up to a whopping ten inches across and their fully developed weight means that support of some sort is almost essential.
Peony foliage is an attractive reddish bronze colour as it emerges in spring, and its deeply dissected outline continues to have presence throughout the season. The plants resent disturbance and can often take a few years to flower after moving, but given a sunny site they will go on to give great pleasure for decades.
Peonies are hardy, tough plants that have certainly stood the test of time. Whatever fad or fashion Chelsea throws up this year, their rich, sensual, and seductive beauty will continue to captivate gardeners for many years to come.