There are some plants I could never tire of or have too many of. I will never be bored of iris and no matter how many acres I had to plant I don’t think I would ever have spare space. But, if I am honest, the iris plant is not a beautiful thing. I am talking about bearded iris here – I know that other iris are more attractive when out of flower. I am sometimes obsessed with ‘flowers’ but, to make a good garden you must consider all aspects of the plant: the leaves, habit, fragrance, texture and form. Peonies are another plant I could never tire of and while the flowers are extraordinarily beautiful the plants have ‘class’. To me that means that they have a beauty, even when out of flower, that makes them a huge, sometimes understated, contribution to the border.
Peonies are, roughly, divided into herbaceous and tree (really shrub) peonies. This is not the place to go into great detail but obviously the tree peonies are woody and do not die back to the base and there is one bright yellow-flowered shrubby peony (P. lutea) which has led to a few (French) hybrid tree peonies and just one (very pale) yellow herbaceous peony (P. mlokosewitschii).
One clever man managed to hybridise the herbaceous and tree peonies. Dr Tiochi Itoh spent the best part of 50 years trying to cross the two types beginning in the early 1900s. In 1948 he finally succeeded by crossing the yellow P. x lemoinei with the white-flowered P. lactiflora ‘Kakoden’. From this cross he raised 36 plants and they took years to bloom – not until 1964. Sadly Dr Itoh died in 1956 so never saw his plants in flower. But these seedlings were the start of something very special and four of them, all yellow, were selected, named and introduced, first in the USA. This was the breakthrough that breeders needed and started a series of new hybrids. So now we have wonderful ‘Intersectional’ or ‘Itoh’ hybrids.
In spring 2013 I went mad and bought five of these, along with a lot more herbaceous peonies to add to the garden here. That was a bit of an investment because these plants are still rather uncommon and expensive despite the ‘relative ‘ease of propagation through micro-propagation. The commonest and cheapest of the ‘Itohs’ is the bright yellow ‘Bartzella’ although this cost $1000 a plant when introduced. Plants cost a bit less now although all those I bought cost between €50 and €80 two years ago. So is any plant worth that much? Well, while I accept that €80 is a lot of money, these peonies are easier to grow than tree peonies, flower for longer than either tree peonies or herbaceous peonies, live almost for ever (we assume), generally need no staking, have lovely foliage and you do get the ‘buzz’ of having something new.
Last year none of the new plants flowered but they did grow away quite well and were healthy enough. They are all in sun or part shade, in heavy soil that is enriched with mushroom compost in most cases. In winter the stems die back to ground level.
This year they are bounding away and all have lots of buds and masses of stems. The flower buds are pointed, rather like tree peonies. The first to bloom here is ‘First Arrival’ which is a large flower, up to 20cm across in a beautiful lilac pink that fades as it ages. These flowers are four days old and not fully open because of the cold, wet day. You can see that, despite the wet, windy weather, the stems are holding the flowers well without staking. It is growing in a south-east facing border.
‘First Arrival’ was introduced by Anderson in 1986, is classified as mid season, despite being the first peony to bloom here, and grows to 90cm high and wide though my plant is rather less at the moment.
Here you can see the whole plant, with four open flowers and more than four more buds to open. Come back for the others as they open.
7/10 (because of the cost)