flowersflowers a-zsarah from blossom and branch

flowers a-z: p is for peony

by SarahB

If you know anything about me at this point, it’s that I like to give the people what they want. And typically, what the people want is exactly what I want. That’s why this week, “p” is for peony! I had so many requests to feature this bloom — and clearly it is one of my favorites — so here we are, off to the races. I find that peonies never fail to evoke “ooh” and “aah” responses from even the most indifferent flower consumer. The fluffy, layered petals, the intergalactic centers, the divine fragrance and the saturated colors all pack a powerful wallop. Today I will be using just a few of the many hundreds of peony varieties: Glowing Candles (white), Coral Charm (peach), Le Charme (dark pink), Jules Elie (light pink) and Garden Treasure (yellow).

I think my absolute most-beloved peony variety is the Coral Charm (pictured above), but honestly, this is like determining which one of your children you love most :) Peonies are native to Asia, Southern Europe and Western North America and range in hue from deep red and light pink to peach, yellow and white. They have a relatively short blooming season, peaking from late spring through early summer, which makes them all the more sought after. Peonies fall into three basic categories: bush peonies, tree peonies and intersectional peonies. The types of flowers within those categories refer to the shape of the blossom, arrangement of the petals, country of origin, etc. — single, double, semi-double, bomb double, Japanese, anemone. Growers in various regions form new hybrids each season, and it is always a thrill to see what’s new at the market every year.

The peony root has long been used in traditional medicine in Korea, China and Japan for general concerns with the central nervous system and cardiovascular system and to address convulsions, allergic reactions and many other more specific ailments. As always, please consult with a professional before deciding to mash up the plants in your backyard and have a go at concocting your own serum :)

Peonies can be very fickle flowers, indeed. First of all, they seem to come into and go out of season in a flash. Once it starts to get legitimately warm in spring, they appear, but the minute it gets too hot, they shy away again until the following year. Here on the East Coast of the US, by July 4th, they are generally no more, particularly as a cut flower. Second, once they are cut and you bring them home (or bring them inside, you lucky ducks with a garden), if the buds are too tight, they might not open quickly enough for your taste or even at all! Finally, once they open, they are grand and gorgeous for only a few days before they explode into a pile of petals. But alas, our love affair with the gentle peony endures.

Stay with me after the jump, and I will demonstrate a simple technique for “forcing” open a tight peony bud and two ideas for peony arrangements. — Sarah

Here she is, an elegant Le Charme peony sealed up tight. I have already removed all the foliage up to the bud, cut her at a sharp angle and placed her in a generous amount of warm water to encourage her to pop. But I need this bloom to open immediately, as my Design*Sponge readers enjoy a lush, full arrangement, and they need to see her glorious center. SO . . .

I fill up a vase with clean, warm water and submerge her head for a few seconds, up to a few minutes. Sometimes, if the situation is more critical (“I need to make this bridal bouquet NOW!”), I will let the head soak for up to a half hour or so. As you hold the head underwater, gently swish it around, and you will see air bubbles coming up as the water seeps into the bud.

And just like that, she awakens.

A few minutes later, she was happy to join the rest of her colleagues in a mercury glass urn (here, I used the Jules Elie peonies combined with a green accent of “p” for pistachio greens!). There are so many spectacular ways to design with peonies. Today I have chosen two designs that layer the blooms in a riot of color and texture. I think both have a very baroque feel, appropriate to the fancy peony.

Above, I used a basic, cylindrical glass vase. I filled the vase with modern, variegated hosta leaves, which I think are an amazing complement to the sorbet hues of the peonies in this arrangement (Coral Charm, Garden Treasure and Glowing Candles).

Look at these two beauties paired up . . . almost too much. Almost.

How about that fried-egg-looking Glowing Candle peony?


Please go find some peonies at the local market, in a neighbor’s yard, in a public garden or wherever before they leave us again. Lean in close and inhale the sweet aroma, but be careful you don’t get an ant on your nose — they love the peony nectar. Join me back here in two weeks when I struggle to top “p” with “q”!

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  • Ahh, I love peonies! We were very lucky to inherit a large peony when we bought our house–it’s at least 30 years old! It needs to be divided but I’m scared to mess with it. Although living in the South, our peonies bloom in late April/early May so this time of year they’re long gone. Sigh.

  • oh! i’m going to give my hand at waking them up! i didn’t realize that this could be done, and we’ve had an odd spring here in wisconsin, resulting in lots of peonies to still be sleeping. thanks for the tip!

  • Oooooh these are gorgeous! Peonies are one of my favorite old-fashioned flowers. That sorbet bouquet is just beautiful!

  • Aren’t peonies full of ants? I always hear that they’re beautiful but full of ants. By the way, your flowers are absolutely beautiful and makes me want some! I’m not much of a gardener but would love to be–and these would so do it for me! Thanks for sharing.

  • Growing in the garden they tend to be covered in ants. I’ve heard the ants actually help to open them up. Once they’re fully open there aren’t too many ants left and you can usually shake off the stragglers.

  • P is for Pretty, Precious, Poignant! Peonies are all of these and more. Thanks for the tip on “waking” them up – I get so impatient waiting sometimes. Out here in Southern California, you can find them at Trader Joe’s for $6.99 for about 5 blooms. I won’t stop buying them weekly until they’re gone!

  • Oh, peonies. My ultimate favorite since childhood. My grandmother (from a family of farmers) grew them in her garden and my sister and I used to pick them and put them in vases all over the house. Because of my grandmother, they will remain my favorite for the rest of my life. I also quite like having them around as big buds and watching them blossom slowly, taking in the beautiful aroma every time I pass.

  • one of the reasons we bought our current house was the long line of peonies along its side—just heaven in late April. Yes, the ants help the peonies bloom. One trick I learned to minimize their presence is to wait till dusk to cut them, then swish the blooms gently in a bucket of water to remove any stragglers. If you really want to be sure, leave the cut blooms out for a few more hours before bringing them indoors.

  • Ah, these peonies are gorgeous! I’m loving the bouquets!! I love when I can have flowers in my apartment but they never stay alive long enough for me to really enjoy them.

  • Gorgeous arrangements! I just moved to the Netherlands from Southeast Asia, where we don’t have peonies. The first time I saw peonies at the market, I fell in love. Here they are about €3.50 (roughly $5) for a bunch of 5. I buy them every week and will keep doing so until they go out of season!

  • It’s a myth that ants help peonies bloom. If that were true, then greenhouse peonies wouldn’t open. The ants are attracted to the nectar though and can help deter other insects interested in the plants. My favorite flower and state flower for Indiana! I need track down some yellow ones to plant.

  • My ultimate favorite too! Our summer here on the wet coast is off to a late start, so we are in full swing with the peonies now! I had no idea there were so many varieties though! Thanks for the tip on opening them up!

  • i think one of the things that makes peonies so special is that you just can’t get them any time you want. they are only around certain times of the year, and just don’t bend to our demand for NOW. i love that :) rebellious little peonies :)

  • Wow! How little I knew. I have always considered the peony my favorite flower, but I had no idea there were so many varieties. Thank you for the beautiful presentation!

  • Peonies will always remind me of my June wedding. All of my flowers and bouquets were a mixture of bright and light pink (Sarah Bernhardt) peonies. It will always be my favorite flower and a reminder one of the most wonderful and romantic days of my life!

  • I grew up surrounded by peony bushes in the yard where I played in the spring and summer. The fragrance, the size and the many petals falling to the ground like snow are just wonderful to me. I have gotten some of my own this past spring and cannot wait to see them next year. What a great idea to get a tight bloom to open! Thanks for a lovely article.

  • Our studio, Renee Landry Style, also places peonies outside in the shade, near ANTS!!!!!

    Yes ANTS! Ants are know to break the seal of the peony and help them open up quicker!!!!

  • Thank you for sharing just took 6 dozen peonies out of refrigerator 9 days before my daughters wedding. Need all advice on timing the blooms, this was excellent. Sharing with my 2 friends who are also doing with me. :)