August 24, 2017

The Lusciously Decadent World of Peonies

Two varieties of peonies in bloom in June

Janine Pineo Photo | Two varieties of peonies in bloom in June

• By Janine Pineo •

Lush.

That was the only word to describe the first wave of peonies three weeks ago in my yard.

The heirlooms from my grandmother were a heady delight, with massive blooms wafting that rich, unmistakable fragrance around the yard while I labored over the vegetable garden.

Paeonia lactiflora 'Do Tell' in bloom in Ken Liberty's garden

Janine Pineo Photo – Paeonia lactiflora ‘Do Tell’ in bloom in Ken Liberty’s garden

It was about then that I resolved that this would be the year to visit the peony garden of Ken Liberty of Bangor.

In previous years when the Peony Society of Maine held a tour of its president’s Ohio Street garden, I’ve been busy in my own plot and couldn’t justify leaving it, even if it was to drool over peonies.

But this year, two tour dates were scheduled, and I knew once the last seeds were sown, I was a free gardener, at least until the tomatoes needed to be staked.

What a fool I was to wait.

Lush doesn’t even begin to describe Liberty’s collection.

Try decadent.

The Peony Society’s annual tour will be held June 15 and June 22.
Click on the date for more information.

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Last Saturday was the second tour date, and it happily coincided with the blossoming of a majority of herbaceous peonies at the garden. Liberty also has several tree peonies, somewhat of a misnomer since that type of peony is actually a deciduous woody shrub, but those had finished their brief flowering the week before.

While sorry to have missed that display, I couldn’t be sad to see the dozens of varieties gracing Liberty’s back yard in the heart of city. He has about 80 varieties, I was told, with about 100 plants.

The herbaceous peonies are usually Paeonia lactiflora, the ancestor of most hybrids, and are the kind you see everywhere in Maine, most often in shades of pink and white. The plants die back to the ground each fall and spring forth vigorously once the ground thaws. Herbaceous types come in myriad colors and have five different bloom forms: single-petaled, Japanese-type (anemone), semidouble, bomb-type; and full double.

Liberty’s garden is as awash in these forms as it is in colors: white, cream, coral and reds, not to mention a kaleidoscope of pinks.

And then there is the smell. Overall, there was a light perfume in the air, unmistakably peony.

But once you started sniffing the individual flowers, the range of scents was as varied as the colors. While most had the classic peony undertone, many of the newer hybrids had other subtle notes, from fruity to flowery.

By far, my favorite was a pink beauty that looked to be of the bomb-type form. And just my luck, it is one of the few varieties of which Liberty can’t remember the name.

I can empathize easily. With only seven or eight varieties in my yard, there reside two whose names escape me. Just this month, I believe I identified one of my grandmother’s hand-me-downs. I could be wrong, but I believe “Edulis Superba” is the pink peony she has had for decades. If it is, then it can trace its roots back to 1824 France, where it came about under Nicolas Lemon, who was renowned for his work with peonies.

The other peony from my grandmother is “Festiva Maxima,” a name I’ve known for some time. It, too, is a French peony, dating to 1851.

Liberty has at least one “Festiva” tucked into his peony beds. His other magnificent whites include “Gardenia” from 1955, “Le Cygne” (the swan) from 1907, “Mary E. Nicholls” from 1941 and “Lake of Silver” from 1920.

His lone coral standout was “Coral ‘N Gold,” from 1981, which had but a single flower left. Liberty said it was somewhat bleached from the sun, but that didn’t diminish its charm for me.

The garden boasted more than a few reds, including the Japanese-type “Battle Flag” from 1941, the brilliant double “Highlight” from 1952 and the double “Big Ben” from 1932.

My favorite red had to be “Hot Chocolate” from 1971. Could it just be the name or might it have been the fragrance, which I could have sworn had a whiff of cocoa to it?

The pinks were plentiful, with my aforementioned unknown leading the pack for sheer elegance. But I was intrigued by two Japanese-type, or anemone-flowering, varieties. The 1946 hybrid “Do Tell” was quietly charming tucked off to one side of the garden, while shooting off fireworks at the top of the garden was a dazzling “Gay Paree.” This variety from 1933 is eye-catching because of its brilliant pink petals topped with a puff of cream and can put on quite a display.

The wonder of peonies is that they are long-lived (a century wouldn’t be unheard of) and easy to tend, which means you can plant them and pretty much forget them.

But you can’t forget them. They won’t let you, at least for a few days each year when the glorious blooms brighten the world.

It is that briefness that makes peonies so easy to cherish.

And a little bittersweet to adore.

For more information

If you are interested in joining the Peony Society of Maine, go to www.bairnet.org/~peony/ and click on the links to learn more about the group and download a membership form.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in June 2007.