The prairies of southern Minnesota area among the best places in the world to grow peonies, according to Laverne Dunsmore, owner of Countryside Gardens in Delano and one of the state’s foremost peony experts. Dunsmore, a grower and hybridizer, spoke at the Northern Green Expo, the annual educational convention of the Minnesota Nursery and Landscape Association.
In his presentation, Dunsmore talked about what makes a great peony and highlighted some older, but wonderful varieties. Minnesota has a long history of peony growing, particularly in the area around Faribault, MN., home to the Brand Peony Farm and the annual Peony Festival held in the 1920s.
Here are some of the things Dunsmore recommends gardeners look for in a peony:
1) Hardiness. With the exception of Japanese peonies (Paeonia japonica), nearly all peonies are hardy to USDA Zone 4 (south of St. Cloud, MN). For those farther North, “this is the winter to find out what is not quite as hardy” as expected, Dunsmore says.
2) Strong stems. It never fails that a big rain hits the day after your peonies bloom. Choose varieties with strong stems that can hold up those big, beautiful blooms. If you can find it, Dunsmore likes ‘Moonstone’, a pink-white peony with a nice fragrance. Extra bonus: Deer don’t like it.
3) Fragrance. Whether an odor is pleasant or awful is in the nose of the beholder, but Dunsmore thinks fragrance is an important factor in peony selection. Once he likes for smell are ‘Festiva Maxima’, ‘Angel Cheeks’ and ‘Myrtle Gentry’. If you like your peonies odorless, try ‘Candy Stripe’.
4) Long bloom season. While some peonies bloom longer than others, many will bloom only a few days. To enjoy peonies for a longer time, plant several with early, mid and late bloom periods. Peonies, which used to be synonymous with mid-June, are now showing bloom around Memorial Day in some years, Dunsmore says.
5) Disease resistance. In the right location — with plenty of sun, enough spacing to let the breeze through and a well-drained soil — peonies are an easy-care plant. Plants with greater disease resistance tend to be those with thicker leaves, Dunsmore says.