Garden Notes: Peonies are amazing, but can come with some drawbacks

I was nose-to-nose with an ant the other day. I bent to smell a lush, fluffy peony, and surprise! Fortunately for both of us, I hadn’t reached maximum sniffing capacity.

Harvey Buchite from Hidden Springs Flower Farm, says all peonies are fragrant, and most carry a scent of roses, water lily or citrus. Their perfume changes throughout the day and can depend on humidity, temperature or even the age of the flower. As the volatile essential oil evaporates, so does the peony fragrance.

William Cullina, in his book “Understanding Perennials,” blames this elusive smell on “just our Pavlovian response” to ethylene. Ethylene is in all sweet, penetrating floral scents and when inhaled “produces a mild, pleasurable euphoria.”

The exception might be some single or semi-double flowers which emit a raw-chicken-forgotten-in-a-hot-car odor. These peony forms are gorgeous in the garden, but definitely not blossoms to be enjoyed in a crystal vase.

Herbaceous peonies are amazingly long-lived plants, divided and shared by gardeners for centuries. In the late 19th century, pastel and white double-flowered hybrids were America’s most popular garden plant. But the blossom’s startling size was also a handicap, because the first hard rain loaded their petals with water and made them so heavy they flopped over, never to raise their heads again.

Along came A.P. Saunders, a chemistry professor at Hamilton College, in Clinton, N.Y., who developed hybrids with stronger stems and jewel-like colors. He included tree peonies in his work and succeeded in developing strong vibrant colors like Argosy, a bright yellow, and the incredible black-red Black Panther. You can still find them for sale.

A few years ago, I bought a tree peony with deep burgundy flowers. I was surprised when these dramatically colored blossoms were followed by smaller, soft pink peonies. I had a BOGO!

Turns out, tree peonies aren’t such a bargain when you get two for one. Most tree peonies are grafts grown on the root of an herbaceous peony. The herbaceous root will “nurse” the tree peony through its first few seasons. But if the “nurse” begins to grow on its own, it can steal nutrients from the tree peony.

The experts at Martin’s Nursery on the Birmingham Pike and Tree Peony Garden in Centre Hall said continuously snipping away any herbaceous leaves will correct my problem.

There is powdery mildew to be considered when planting peonies. If you wake up one morning to discover a white powder covering the leaves of your peony, don’t plan a memorial service right away. Powdery mildew doesn’t kill peonies, and rarely attacks tree peonies. But once you’ve got it, you’re stuck with it.

Next year, you can choose from a number of preventative measures like neem oil, rhubarb tea or a biofungicide.

The cooperative extension service in New Jersey recommends potassium bicarbonate at seven- to 10-day intervals.

Coming up

n 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., June 7, Tyrone Library Plant Sale and Master Gardener Plant Clinic, 1000 Pennsylvania Ave., Tyrone.

Contact Teresa Futrick by e-mail at