Val Bourne takes us through the most colourful and appealing varieties of this decorative garden stalwart

I have a lifelong obsession with the peony that started in my infancy with the cottage garden peony, P. officinalis, which flowers for one week every May. The one in my parents’ garden was pink, but faded to near white. Every suburban garden seemed to have this garden stalwart and it’s been grown for decorative reasons, rather than medicinal ones, from the 14th century onwards. When I came to my new garden here, eight years ago, the only plant here was a clump of this cottage garden peony. This survivor thrives in any soil, however dry, and in any climate.

Discerning gardeners tend to move on to Paeonia lactiflora hybrids which flower later, but for longer. My cold garden is perfect for them and all peonies because peony flower buds are provoked by cold temperatures. This is the reason why you never plant peonies deeply. Position the nobbly roots just two inches below the soil so they can feel the winter chill on their toes. Any deeper and they often fail to flower.

P. lactiflora has been cultivated in China for centuries. It arrived here, probably as large seeds, in 1784. However, the first serious peony breeding was carried out in France and by the mid-19th century, nurserymen were raising and naming new varieties for the garden and forcing the flowers for the cut flower markets of Paris. This was the age of the nouveau riche who built great houses designed to impress their friends, and flowers were in great demand. Jacques Calot, who died in 1875, raised the unsurpassable white ‘Duchesse de Nemours’.

Felix Crousse (1840-1925) bought Calot’s nursery stock following his death and went on to breed the bombe-shaped double pink ‘Monsieur Jules Elie’ and the magenta-carmine ‘Felix Crousse’.

Victor Lemoine (1823 -1911) then acquired Crousse’s collection in this game of ‘pass the peony’ and came up with the pretty pink ’Sarah Bernhardt’ and ‘Solange’. I grow all of these and they are still superb, despite their age.

The French varieties are often scented and come in pinks, whites and magentas. Later breeding was carried out at Kelway and Son, of Langport in Somerset, once the largest nursery in the world. They still sell excellent peonies ( 01458 250521). Once their peonies were exported across the British Empire, but the First World War scuttled the ships and Kelway’s business, although it rose again like a phoenix. Despite their economic woes, the company raised 500 varieties including one of my favourites ‘Lady Alexandra Duff’, a peony with lavender pink outer petals and soft-white inners.

America is now the centre of peony breeding and they’ve added brighter colours to the range, partly because pale peonies fail to glow in strong sunshine. In order to get extra colour (including reds, creams, yellows, corals and peaches), American nurserymen began to cross P. lactiflora with the other species. ‘Coral Sunset’ (Wissing- Carl G. Klehm 1981) used the red P. peregrina ‘Otto Friebel’ and the double-white P. lactiflora ‘Minnie Shaylor‘ to produce coral. Wissing had previously bred ‘Coral Charm’ in 1964, a peachy peony with an orange centre, but it took him over 20 years. I have planted both and hope they thrive.

The old cottage garden peony produced some red flowered forms and when crossed with P. lactiflora it produced the stunning ‘Buckeye Belle’ (Mains 1956). This has the wonderful, high-gloss foliage of P. lactiflora but flowers earlier so is often used by designers at The Chelsea Flower Show. Another creamy hybrid, also a Chelsea star, is the creamy ‘Claire de Lune’ (White 1954). This is a hybrid between P. lactiflora ‘Monsieur Jules Elie’ and the early single yellow Molly the witch (P. mlokosewitschii).

A lot of peony species flower early in the year. although they tend to be fleeting. Their foliage is often fascinating, so I have planted many. The first to flower is the slightly tender P. cambessedesii found in Majorca. The pink, single flowers are out by mid-April and the foliage is a smoky pink and grey. Nearby I’ve got the finely divided P. tenuissima, with leaves like a burning bush. They are two of the species I’ve found room for. They’re expensive to buy so I have raised many from seeds and now I have peonies from early April until mid-June.