Shade-loving Japanese peony casts a spell

Japanese peony is a delight in a shady woodland garden.

Photo courtesy of Betty Earl.
The elegant Paeonia Japonica, a Japanese native, grows in mountainous areas in deciduous and coniferous woodland.

There’s nothing as intoxicating as when the herbaceous peonies (Paeonia lactiflora) come into full blossom every spring.

When those sassy plants burst into voluptuous full bloom tossing their luxurious, ruffled heads about like some glitzy Vegas show girls, all the while dripping a perfume that‘s rich, heady and delicious – well, who can resist them?

With embarrassingly little work on my part, these horticultural extravaganzas – which resist drought, munching deer, and insect attacks – are luxurious additions to my sunny perennial beds and borders.

But while I love those flamboyant, big-flowered hussies, it’s the simple, demure ones which inspire a true gardener’s obsession on my part.

From that first perfect plump bud to the aristocratic full blown blossoms in mid- to late April, the shade-loving Paeonia japonica (Japanese peony) is the peony which has captivated and held me under her spell for years.

So it wasn’t surprising that when I finally decided to expand my shade gardens this fall, some of the very first plants I ordered were Japanese peonies.

Native to certain islands in northern Japan, P. japonica is noted for her compact size -- usually only about 18 inches tall and as wide -- and beautiful green foliage, a wonderful textural addition to a shady border.

The single 3-inch, pristine white flowers, whose silky petals boast a faint crinkled edge, fade to a center cluster of yellow stamens.

Although the Japanese peony is not very vigorous and her graceful flowers are rather fleeting, she does reward my efforts by packing all her horticultural punch into one short but glorious burst of bloom.

And if that wasn’t rewarding enough, as an added bonus, after the flowers fade, the pods split open to reveal gorgeous metallic-blue seeds inside magenta pouches.

While most herbaceous peonies prefer an open, sunny place in the garden, this one, whose natural habitat is the woody mountains of Japan, is happiest when planted in light shade.

P. japonica is fully hardy to USDA Zone 5 but can be damaged by high winds and is, therefore, best planted beneath deciduous trees or close to shrubs. Plant it so that the dormant buds are at ground level, but for extra winter protection, I like to cover the buds with mulch.

Perfect siting is crucial, for, once planted, P. japonica prefers being left alone. If you are patient, you can increase your collection by dividing the plant every three or four seasons.

However, for people like me, who need somewhat instant gratification in their gardens, I find that lifting and dividing to increase stock not only aggravates the plants, but the long time it takes for them to recover truly irritates me as well.

So, if you want to expand your collection as I just did, my suggestion is to order new plants rather than disturb the established woodland divas.

Betty Earl, author of “In Search of Great Plants: The Insider’s Guide to the Best Plants in the Midwest,” writes a regular column for Chicagoland Gardening Magazine and The Kankakee Journal and numerous articles for Small Gardens Magazine, American Nurseryman, Nature’s Garden, and Midwest Living Magazine, as well as other national magazines. She is a garden scout for Better Homes and Gardens and a regional representative for The Garden Conservancy.

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