The best part of gardening is the sense of expectation it gives us: anticipating the flowering of a tulip tree, waiting for the first flowers of the hellebores or hoping for the success of a new plant combination.  In spite of the offerings of TV makeover programmes, most gardeners realise that even if there is such thing as an instant garden, there is no pleasure in it.  Our gardens need a lot of thought, some hard work, a little trial and error, but, most of all, patience.

In early summer few plants illustrate the reward of patience as much as the herbaceous peonies.  They do not perform well in pots so are not immediately attractive when marketed on garden-centre shelves; they take a year or two to settle down after planting so they do not provide an instant fix; and, in order to thrive, they need a well-cultivated garden. Once established, though, they will flourish for decades.  Visit a garden with well-established peony borders, such as the splendid potager fluerie at St-Jean de Beauregard, near Paris, in May and June and you will appreciate immediately the magnificence of the plant.

The peonies’ first glossy shoots in spring provide a brilliant foil to small bulbs.  Their flowers, sometimes full and voluptuous, sometimes fragile and demure, are as beautiful as any you will find in the garden.

Paeonia emodii.  The favourite of all my peonies.

Paeonia emodi. The favourite of all my peonies.

The genus has a botanical family all to itself – Paeoniacae and in the wild are native to hey are native to Asia, Southern Europe and north-wetsern parts of America.  Most of the species are herbaceous perennials with a few shrubby knows, known as tree peonies.

Peonies, particularly the tree peonies, are strongly linked with the history and culture of China and they figure prominently in Chinese paintings.  Until the cultural revolution the flower was the national symbol of the country and their have recently been attempts to restore its status.

Herbaceous peony in bud

Herbaceous peony in bud

How to grow

In general, peonies need a lot of sun and a lot of space to thrive.  They are not plants that do well when crowded out by other herbaceous perennials or overhung by shrubs.

Peonies need deep rich soil with good drainage. If the soil is heavy incorporate plenty of horticultural grit into the area when you intend to grow your peonies and then dig lots of compost or well-rotted manure into the planting hole.

The best time to plant peonies is in autumn while the soil is still warm.  Plant them at the same level that the peonies are growing in their pots.  If you are planting bare-rooted specimens make sure that you do not bury the emerging buds.

Peonies painted at the beginning of the eighteenth century by Giuseppe Castiglione, an Italian missionary to China

Peonies painted at the beginning of the eighteenth century by Giuseppe Castiglione, an Italian missionary to China