Growing Peonies from Seed
About ten years ago I was scanning the internet for interesting nurseries when I came across Paul Christian’s Rare Plants. Among a plethora of rare, beautiful and mostly expensive plants I found a number of species peonies. These were all listed with impeccable references as to their provenance, ease of cultivation and aesthetic qualities. Of equal or greater interest to the fledgling nurseryman were the prices - anything from £15 to £35 per plant.
I had already discovered Will McLewin’s Phedar Nursery which as well as offering species hellebore seeds also had a wide range of peony seeds collected in the wild. A quick calculation suggested I could make a return of several thousand per cent on each seed as well as growing a few rare and beautiful plants for my own pleasure.
There were, not surprisingly, a few flaws in my plan. Firstly not every seed germinated. Secondly, those that did germinate only produced their first leaf in their second season. Thirdly, they continued to grow at a painfully slow rate. After five years I had about thirty plants which were large enough to be recognizable as species peonies to the serious plantsperson. Unfortunately there weren’t that many serious plantspeople at the kind of markets where I was selling my plants and even fewer who were prepared to pay Rare Plants prices for plants which couldn’t even be guaranteed to flower within a year. I ended up selling a few plants of Paeonia tenuifolia at about £8.00 each and even fewer Gansu Mudan hybrids - (shrubby Chinese peonies with enormous blowsy flowers). Whether this was sufficient to cover the cost of producing them is something I prefer not to dwell on.
When we decided to move and I reluctantly gave up the nursery we were left with a number of different peony species which were moved in their pots and eventually planted out in their new homes. In the first year they produced some interesting leaves. Paeonia tenuifolia delighted us with its finely divided thread-like leaves and small bright scarlet flowers in the second year.
Finally three years after the move and ten years after sowing, there was a mass blooming of species peonies in a small garden in Bath.
Paeonia peregrina had deep green glossy leaves and bowl shaped flowers in a shade of bright scarlet which, if it were a lipstick, you would love but your mother wouldn’t approve of. The leaves die rather untidily and it is a little startling first thing in the morning but I’m certainly not going to move it.
P. mascula ssp. hellenica had large single white flowers with a slight pink flush early in the season. It also produced considerable amounts of seed - some of which will be going to the HPS seed distribution. Anyone who is reasonably fit and very patient would be well advised to apply.
P. anomala (red stemmed form) is a relatively large plant with mid pink saucer-shaped flowers in late May and early June. If I allowed myself a favourite this would be it. It also has (not surprisingly) red stems and finely divided foliage which remains attractive throughout the summer turning a shade of orangey-brown as it matures. The few seed from this one will be staying with me.
P. biebersteiniana is possibly a subspecies of tenuifolia and certainly very similar to it. One internet site describes it as having “finer leaves and coarser foliage” than tenuifolia. If anyone can understand this I would be pleased to hear from them.
P. Gansu Mudan hybrids - so-called ‘tree peonies’ - are really small shrubs growing to no more than ten feet. I have kept three of them.
The first two both have stunning large semi-double creamy white flowers with deep maroon-markings at the base. The flowers appear identical to those pictured as P. suffruticosa ssp. rockii in the RHS Encyclopaedia. As I discovered, anyone wanting to find the true identity of “the legendary” P. rockii can waste many a happy hour on the internet, although I wouldn’t take too much notice of the Wikipedia entry which limits its description of the flowers to “big and bright”. The third plant is still in a large pot. It has darker leaves than the other two and I await its flowering with interest.
Growing peonies from seed may not have made my fortune but it has, eventually, given me a great deal of pleasure and I shall continue to collect and grow seed as long as I am able.
First published in the Wilts & Avon Group Newsletter September 2013
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 35.
© Copyright for this article: Gordon Cottis
This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2015. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.