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author: Eileen Argyris photos: Lana Taylor-mills

 Watershed Beyond The Garden Gate: A Bow To The Peony

Long-lived and easy to grow, their heady blossoms are irresistible

THEY CAN BE LUSCIOUS EXPLOSIONS OF COLOUR AND FRAGRANCE or gentle pastels with little or no scent. There is a peony variety for every taste and virtually every temperate growing site and, with a modicum of care, they can live 50 to 100 years. No wonder people are passionate about these plants. Peonies have been around practically forever, cultivated for their beauty and reported medicinal properties. In ancient China, they were used to flavour food. One source says the philosopher Confucius would eat nothing that was not flavoured with peony sauce.

A Greek myth claims the peony was named for Paean, or Paeon, a student of the great healer Asclepius. As will sometimes happen, the pupil’s skills began to rival those of the master and Asclepius became fiercely jealous. So Zeus, most powerful god of Olympus, turned Paean into a flower to protect him from his instructor’s wrath. In this way, according to the story, the first peony came into being. They have been healing our hearts and souls with their beauty ever since.

Tom Harris, of Warkworth, is president of the Canadian Peony Society, whose mission is “to promote the growing, improving and use of peonies…to encourage peony breeding to produce distinctly Canadian peony hybrids…to produce a national registry of collections and to sponsor periodic national and regional shows.” Tom is also owner-operator, with his partner Dennis Gebhardt, of Schoolhouse Gardens in Warkworth.

“I was fed up with Toronto and needed some space,” he says. So in 1987, he and Dennis purchased an old schoolhouse on four acres of land and renovated it to be their home and business. They cultivate between 300-400 varieties of peonies and about 3,000 varieties of all kinds of flowers, including hosta, daylilies and also herbs and vegetables. Needless to say, it’s become a popular spot for weddings and other photo shoots (by reservation). Lana Taylor-Mills, who now also makes her home in Warkworth, is treasurer of the Canadian Peony Society. Recently, she sold her home and garden business in Morganston, but continues to offer her peony wisdom to horticultural societies, garden clubs and anyone else who’s interested. When choosing a peony plant, Lana advises, “Look for sturdy stems.” They can be planted from seeds, she notes, but you’d better be a very patient gardener, because “They can take up to seven years to bloom.”

Lana’s favourite is the Festiva Maxima, characterized by its large, white double blooms and extravagant fragrance. Rose, lemon, honey and musk are some of the other peony scents. Heavy-headed Festiva Maxima “are famous for flopping over when it rains,” Lana says.

“Herbaceous peonies come in almost every shade you can imagine,” she continues, from purest white to deep maroon, red, coral, yellow, pink, peach and lavender. The bloom types include single, double, semi-double, Japanese, anemone and bomb. You’ll see them from mid-May to late June in this part of Canada, but there are some that bloom very early in the season and others much later. (Lana has never grown the woody species, known as Tree Peonies, which are reputed to be less hardy than the many different varieties of herbaceous plants.) We in the north are blessed with these stunning plants, since they need their winter period of dormancy to get their beauty sleep, and simply don’t grow in tropical climates. They mainly thrive in Zones 2 to 8 and, happily, are resistant to both drought and deer.

Peonies like good garden soil, but can tolerate clay, especially when compost is added. But they don`t like fertilizer, says Tom. About six hours of sunlight every day will help them thrive. You can buy them in pots in summer, but Tom advises leaving them there – outdoors – until fall when they become dormant and are least likely to be disturbed by transplanting.

Peonies will grow thickly and can be divided from time to time – best to do this in the fall. Cut the plants back to about four inches above ground level, then dig around the perimeter of the clump. You can then lift out the whole clump and when the root is exposed, you’ll see “eyes” like those of potatoes. That’s where they should be separated, says Tom, and replanted bare-root. (YouTube has good videos on this.) Be choosy about the planting site because these plants can live for decades. And remember, conditions such as sun, shade and soil can change over the long life of the peony. Properly done, dividing doesn’t hurt them, but they do not like to be moved in whole. Other than that, says Tom, “They’re easy, so easy.”

As for the relationship between ants and peonies, it’s all about sugar. The blossoms secrete a sugar loved by these insects, but it’s a myth that peonies need ants to survive and thrive. When picking blossoms for indoor display, cut the blooms before they’ve fully opened and turn them upside down and shake them, or even leave them out on the porch overnight to give the unwelcome bugs a chance to make their way home to their own beds. Schoolhouse Gardens offers educational tours of its verdant grounds. Whatever part of the growing season you choose, something will be bloomin’ beautiful. If you would like to visit, make an appointment with Tom and Dennis at 705-924-3255.

The Canadian Peony Society is sponsoring the 13th Annual Oshawa Peony Festival and Ontario Region Peony Show on June 10-11 in the Oshawa Valley Botanical Gardens. More information on this and other events is available at peony.ca.


Along with the plum blossom, the peony is a traditional floral symbol of China, a flower of riches and honour. That’s why you see it as a motif in Chinese decorative arts.

In ancient times, they were thought to alleviate headaches and asthma.

Perfect for June wedding bouquets, they are thought to symbolize good fortune and a happy marriage.

The plant can live for 100 years!

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david newland

contributor 1Writer, performer and speaker, David was named a Fellow of the Royal Canadian…

eileen argyris

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Eileen has lived in Northumberland County since 1971, and spent most of her journalism....

jeff bray

contributor 3Jeff has been in and around the food world for over 18 years He’s passionate about food – where it comes from and who makes it....