Peonies, A Perennial Pleaser

There are about 2,000 peony plants at Eleanor Tickner's Peony Garden. ( Charles Fox / StaffPhotographer )
There are about 2,000 peony plants at Eleanor Tickner's Peony Garden. ( Charles Fox / StaffPhotographer )
Posted: May 13, 2011

It's said that fussy roses attract obsessives and garish tropicals speak mainly to men. What do we know, then, about the people and personalities who lust after peonies?

It's a question Eleanor Tickner, veteran peony personality herself, answers without hesitation: 75 percent are female, older than 50, and sentimental about "Grandma's floppies." Those are the old-fashioned red, white, and pink beauties beloved by earlier generations, even though their huge blooms went face first in the mud during spring rains.

"They remember the big, fragrant, floppies and they all have stories about Grandma," says Tickner, president of the 20-member Mid-Atlantic Peony Society, which she cofounded in 2007.

Tickner falls well within the category she describes: She's 70, a retired analytical lab technician, and has happy childhood memories of a neighbor's peonies. Now she grows 2,000 of her own - yes, 2,000, mostly the herbaceous or shrubby types - on her four-acre property in Glen Mills.

She doesn't know E-Ni Foo, but they are soul mates in peony madness, especially this time of year. This is bloom season - always a much-anticipated event in the peony world, and this may be the best ever.

The season lasts another few weeks, at most, before the long wait begins anew.

Foo and his wife, Betty, who are deeply involved in Chinese American exchange programs and teaching, are the longtime owners of Hunan Restaurant in Ardmore and keepers of a stunning peony garden on three quarters of an acre in Bryn Mawr. As the primary peony fanatic, Foo is certainly the right age - "over 50" - but he's in the male minority.

And he doesn't exactly have childhood memories of peonies; he grew up in Taiwan, where there weren't any. Taiwan weather is subtropical, like Puerto Rico's, he explains, whereas peonies need a four-season climate like Philadelphia's to grow properly.

Still, from an early age, Foo was well aware of this imperial flower, which has an ancient history - and is most revered - in China. So when he saw a pink tree peony for sale in a Montgomery County nursery 20 years ago, though he had no clue how to care for it, he had to buy it.

Today Foo, an expert in theoretical solid-state physics, grows about 50 tree peonies, and babies another 50 seedlings, on a curved slope behind his home that overlooks acres of protected open space.

Tree peonies (Paeonia suffruticosa) have larger flowers, more forms and colors, than the shrub types, also known as garden peonies (Paeonia lactiflora). Both can be fragrant, some indescribably luscious, with blooms occasionally so heavy, the stems can't hold up.

(That's when you cut the flower, bring it inside, and float it in a bowl of water. Heavenly!)

Showing a visitor around, Foo is smiling widely, snapping photos of his frilly pink, white, red, and purple blooms - no yellow yet - and walking with noticeable lightness from tree to tree.

"So beautiful," he says, as Betty chimes in with "this white one is my favorite," but before you know it, she's exclaiming over a red blossom the size of a soccer ball.

Although tree peonies look like stylized miniature trees, they're actually shrubs with treelike, woody stems. They grow slowly - six inches a year, up to eight or nine feet - and are known for their longevity. Some in China are said to live 200 years or more.

"For tree peonies, you must have patience. You must have endurance, step-by-step, very slowly," says Foo, who, when asked about his favorites, sounds nothing like his usual low-key self.

In fact, he sounds more like his wife or Tickner, whose favorites list goes on for miles. "I like red, so bright, and purple-pink. . . . I like real dark, black-red," he says. "I have a lot of yellow, pink, red, white. See how pretty. . . . The petals are like paper, like tissue."

More like fine silk, luminescent as sunlight, with chubby buds that burst with energy.

Jeff Jabco believes this spring's peony show is the best in years, maybe because of the cold winter or plentiful moisture. "I'm not sure what it is, but I've never seen the peonies budded up like they are this year," he says.

Jabco is grounds director and horticulture coordinator at Scott Arboretum at Swarthmore College, which has an extensive collection of peonies that bloom from the end of April through the first week of June.

Tree peonies were first cultivated in China for medicinal use. They were introduced to Japan in the seventh century, and in the 1800s made their way to England, France, and finally the United States, says Jabco, cofounder (with Tickner) of the Mid-Atlantic Peony Society.

Herbaceous peonies, on the other hand, are native in many places, including the United States, where their popularity has ebbed and flowed depending on landscaping fashions and the times. "Availability was the issue with tree peonies, but herbaceous ones have always been much more common," Jabco says.

Tree peonies are harder to propagate, and some take seven or eight years to bloom. So they cost more - $40 or so, sometimes a lot more, compared with about $20 for the herbaceous ones, which are quicker to bloom. Like other perennials, they also die down to the ground in winter, and pop up faithfully the following spring.

A notable development in peony breeding is the Itoh or intersectional hybrid, a combination of the best qualities of tree and herbaceous. Itohs are widely available now, selling for between $30 and $100, but they were scarce and very expensive until the 1990s. That only added to their allure.

Talk about allure. Half of Tickner's 2,000 peonies are on display alongside her 600-foot driveway; the other half are behind the house, for her cultivation and enjoyment.

"Pink here, pink there, I'm happy," says Tickner, a master gardener who grows her peonies in full sun and well-drained soil and rarely waters. (Added value: Deer don't eat them.)

"I am greedy, greedy, greedy," a grinning Tickner says of her peony habit and garden, shared by about 300 visitors a year. "I envy this, I want that, I want them all. It's a habit. It's ungodly!"

Some might argue it's just the opposite.


Read gardening writer Virginia A. Smith's blog at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/ gardening


Contact garden writer Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.

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