Peonies have long been valued in gardens for the incredible showy blooms and their incredibly tough constitution. Many an old farmstead can be found by the patches of peonies long after the house has disappeared. The scientific name for peony, Paeonia, is derived from the Greek physician Paeon who was the physician to the gods according to Homer. Much lore surrounds peonies, Theophrastus writing 300 years B.C.E. warns us that it, "… should be dug at night, for if a man does it in the daytime and is observed by a woodpecker, he risks the loss of his eyesight." Pliny the Elder nearly 2,000 years later in the 1600's echoes this warning and adds that peonies, "… prevent the mocking delusions that the Fauns bring on us in our sleep."
There are between 30–40 species of peonies all found in the northern hemisphere across Europe, through much of Asia and across the Pacific on the west coast of North America. Peonies have been cultivated for centuries leading to an array of cultivars. Perhaps most widely used species in breeding herbaceous peonies has been the delightful P. lactiflora which occurs across Siberia, Mongolia, and China.
Paeonia lactiflora, named for the typically milky-white flowers is actually quite variable in the wild ranging from pure white to deep rose. It is a long-lived perennial with red-tinged new shoots which emerge in spring to form low mounds to 30" of jade green foliage topped in late April to early May with semi-double flowers of ragged edged white to pink flowers surrounding a central boss of gold stamens. In very warm springs, the floral display can be somewhat short but still worth a place in the garden. Quite a few named cultivars exist including the double pink 'Karl Rosenfield' but the simplicity of the species is hard to beat.
The JCRA is currently growing about 50 selections of peony thanks in large part to the American Peony Society. The colors and forms are simply astounding and the new Itoh hybrids which cross the tree and herbaceous peonies are hard to beat but I still gravitate to the sweet P. lactiflora species. We have been growing this species since the mid 1990's, our form being a soft pink flowered selection. It is a reliable performer despite having been moved a few times and now provides a welcome spring display where Asian Valley meets the Perennial Border path.
This species is exceptionally hardy, easily surviving zone 4 winters but also tolerating warm southern gardens as well. As with all peonies, plant with the crown close to the soil level and if planting as a bareroot, dormant crown, make sure to plant with the growing points facing up. More peonies are lost by planting upside-down than you might believe. They are best in a sunny spot but a bit of afternoon shade can help extend the flower show. Once established, they should be low care and easy, reliable perennials for decades to come.