Two weeks ago I promised a column for last week about the Canadian Peony Society’s annual show in Winnipeg on June 14 and 15.
However, when I made that promise, I had not taken into consideration my copy deadline; so here is that column — just a week late!
Attending and exhibiting in the show was a wonderful experience and I learned a lot about peonies and about flower design.
The show was held in the Conservatory at Assiniboine Park — an appropriate setting indeed for such a show. I thought I had died and gone to heaven as I sat in the Conservatory all Friday afternoon arranging flowers in the three designs that I entered.
There were eight designers who entered 25 designs and I had never competed in such a high calibre show before; the designs were amazing.
I did manage to get a second-place ribbon for my traditional mass arrangement design, but alas, my other two designs didn’t come close to measuring up to the competition.
The organizers of the show certainly had their challenges as Manitoba peonies were not open; therefore, peonies for the designers to use had to be flown in from Ontario.
The other seven designers were all from Winnipeg and all of us purchased flowers from florists to accompany the peonies we were given as there were not many flowers available in local gardens because of the late spring.
The judges were very helpful and wrote specific suggestions/criticisms on the backs of all the tags. I learned much about how to improve my designs.
Besides the 25 floral designs, there were 369 peony blooms entered in the show by eight exhibitors — most were from out of province (mainly Ontario). The tables of peony blooms were breathtakingly beautiful.
Most of us are familiar with the common herbaceous peonies, those big fluffy double blooms of pink, red, and white that bloom in our gardens in June and early July.
Gorgeously coloured and heavily scented, these beauties have been integral to prairie landscapes for decades.
Herbaceous peonies are very hardy and low maintenance. In old farm sites and country cemeteries, plants still thrive that have been in the same spot for many decades, even where grass has grown up around them in abandoned sites.
Although the common peonies we all recognize are double, there are single herbaceous peonies that are becoming more common. They have the same characteristics as the doubles, except the blooms have a single row of petals surrounding a tufted centre that is usually golden yellow.
The downside to growing herbaceous peonies is that they are prone to collapsing, especially after a rain. The stems are simply not sturdy enough to support the heavy double blooms and peony rings and stakes are required to keep them upright. Even the singles can go down in a rain.
More recently, plant breeders have developed what are called intersectional peonies by crossing herbaceous peonies with woody tree peonies. Although some prairie gardeners grow tree peonies, they are not reliably hardy and I know very few people who have them in gardens in our area.
The big advantage of these intersectional peonies is that they are completely self-supporting. Because the flowers are usually single and not as heavy and partly because the woody strength of the tree peonies has been bred into them, the stems are strong enough to support the flowers without any need of support.
The intersectional peonies are referred to as Itoh peonies, named after t a Japanese specialist who created the successful crosses between herbaceous and tree peonies.
Many of the peonies on display were intersectional peonies and the grand champion, exhibited by Hazel Cook of Ontario, was an Itoh peony named "Bartzella". It was a huge single bloom of golden yellow and absolutely stunning.
This newer class of peonies comes in some unusual shades as well; I was particularly captivated by the coral, salmon, yellow, and ivory varieties, although there were some astounding reds, deep pinks, and burgundy blooms as well.
Although none of Manitoba’s herbaceous peonies was in bloom in time for the show, our fern peonies were blooming and I managed to take enough blooms from my single red fern peony to the show to create one of my designs. Surprisingly, the blooms stood up very well after being refrigerated, then transported and finally arranged and exhibited for two days.
Fern peonies are also amazingly hardy and carefree and the plant that I have — obtained from an elderly couple who lived next to my parents in Elkhorn in the 1960s — has been an easy-to-look-after plant in my garden ever since. Their blooms are a welcome sight in late May before the other peonies are even budding.
My visit to the Canadian Peony Society’s Show in Winnipeg was a pleasure and I came home determined to add at least one intersectional peony to my garden. The challenge will be to choose just one from the many fabulous choices available.
TIPS FOR GROWING PEONIES
• Never plant a peony deeper than it was planted in its pot
• Provide a full sun exposure
• Ensure that the soil is rich and drains well
Albert Parsons is a consultant for garden design and landscaping who lives in Minnedosa.