Among the specialist plant collections that Claire Austin offers is one of her personal passions: peonies – and there are plenty to be found both in her nursery and her garden.
Peonies are plants Claire feels have much to offer gardeners. Easy to grow and requiring little maintenance, they are sculptural in spring when the stems emerge, have architectural foliage and glorious flowers, so provide several seasons of interest. They start flowering in mid May with the early hybrids and species and reach their climax in mid June.
The best peonies for the garden
Paeonia lactiflora ‘Hot Chocolate’
This early season is peony is an unusual colour combination with dark-red flowers and a pompom-like boss of frilly petaloids.
Paeonia lactiflora ‘Bowl of Cream’
Every petal on this peony is smooth, scented, creamy-white. It double flowers, curves inwards and forms a bowl-like centre. Flowers from early mid season to late season. 80cm. RHS H6.
I usually stick with my favourite peonies, such as ‘Dinner Plate’, ‘Elsa Sass’ and ‘Sarah Bernhardt’,” she says. “But it varies from year to year. If something new comes along and is worthwhile, it will certainly be included.
Paeonia lactiflora ‘Pink Cameo’
Lavender-pink peony petals with a central boss of baby pink petalioids. A prolific flowerer and very fragrant. 1m. RHS H7.
Paeonia lactiflora ‘Pillow Talk’
The beautiful, scented, powder puff peony flowers of soft, pure pink are freely produced on strong stems boasting lush, dark-green leaves. Mid-season. 80cm.
Paeonia lactiflora ‘Karl Rosenfield’
This peony has fragrant, bright-magenta double blooms and a boss of golden stamens that become more prominent as the blooms mature. 80cm. RHS H6.
Paeonia lactiflora ‘Florence Ellis’
The pure-white peony flowers, notched petals and cream petaloids of this lightly scented cultivar make it a good cut flower. 85cm.
Paeonia lactiflora ‘Auguste Dessert’
A reliable, deep-rose-pink peony, semi-double with deep-yellow stamens, fragrant flowers and good autumn foliage. Flowers mid to late season. 90cm. RHS H6.
Paeonia lactiflora ‘Nymphe’
Its deep-pink flowers are strongly scented and like most single peonies, an excellent nectar source for bees. Late season. 80cm. RHS H6, USDA 3a-8b.
Paeonia lactiflora ‘Paul M Wild’
One of the best reds for a cut flower; the brilliant, rich red of the double flowers is very pure. Mid season. 90cm. RHS H6.
Paeonia lactiflora ‘Mr GF Hemerik’
Deep-pink peony petals surround a dome of broad, cream petaloids that fade with age. An easy peony to grow. Mid-season. 1m. RHS H6, USDA 3a-8b.
Paeonia ‘Coral Charm’
An impressive, coral-coloured, semi-double peony. This peony's long-lasting flowers age to soft peach and are carried on long, red stems. Can last for ten days as a cut flower. 85cm. AGM*. RHS H6, USDA 3a-8b.
Paeonia lactiflora ‘Kansas’
A late-flowering peony cultivar with fabulous double flowers that are a clear, rich pink-red. Excellent for cutting. 1.2m.
Paeonia lactiflora ‘Nancy Nicholls’
The big, fluffy, white peony flowers with a blush pink tinge are lightly scented. One of the best late-flowering cultivars. 90cm.
Paeonia lactiflora ‘Monsieur Jules Elie’
Its large, double-domed, rose-pink peony flowers tend to flop but it is worth growing for its heady rose-like scent. Mid season. 90cm.
Paeonia lactiflora ‘Adolphe Rousseau’
A mid-season peony with rich, cerise-red double flowers and yellow stamens. Although it has no scent it is always loaded with flowers. 95cm.
Paeonia lactiflora ‘Miss America’
Semi-double peony flowers are most unusual and the glistening white flowers of this fragrant cultivar are particularly special. Early to mid-season. 90cm. AGM. RHS H7, USDA 3a-8b.
Paeonia lactiflora ‘Sarah Bernhardt’
One of Claire’s favourites, this scented double has pure-pink flowers that are tinted with silver around the edges. Its long stems make this late-season peony a classic flower for cutting. 1m. AGM. RHS H6, USDA 3a-8b.
Paeonia lactiflora ‘Myrtle Gentry’
Another of Claire’s favourites; the large blush-pink, double flowers, fade to white with age and it has an excellent shape and scent. A mid-season bloom, it is long lasting in a vase. 90cm.
Paeonia lactiflora ‘Bowl of Beauty’
This deservedly popular Japanese cultivar boasts bright-pink guard petals and ribbon-like, pale-lemon petaloids. Free flowering and slightly scented. Mid season. 80cm. AGM. RHS H6.
Paeonia lactiflora ‘Shirley Temple’
Claire’s mother planted this lightly scented cultivar in a shady spot 20 years ago, and it produces more than 50 flowers a year. Mid-season. 85cm. RHS H6.
Paeonia ‘Prairie Charm’
The gorgeous, semi-double, yellow flower opens into a deep cup revealing raspberry flares at the base of each petal. Autumn foliage is burnished pewter. 90cm.
Claire's tips for growing peonies
• The leaf buds should be no more than 2.5cm below the soil surface and the planting hole wide enough to accommodate the roots comfortably.
• Support taller cultivars when the stems are around 15cm high.
• Feed every three years in spring, with bonemeal or general fertiliser.
• Organic matter will scorch the emerging buds in spring, so mulch as far away from the central crown as possible.
• Remove old leaves to discourage diseases. Peony wilt is worse during damp weather. If it becomes a problem, dispose of infected parts away from the garden or spray with fungicide.
• Peonies do not mind being moved – especially if they are not divided. If you want to divide plants, do this when they are dormant, from late October to the end of January, and ensure that each division has at least three buds.
• Most of the peonies featured are available as bare-root plants from Claire Austin Hardy Perennials from October to March.