Paeonia 'Cora Louise'

Intersectional peonies: plants that can last for 100 years

At Primrose Hall Nursery Alec White specialises in breeding rare and desirable intersectional peonies – plants that can last for 100 years. Words Alys Fowler, photographs Richard Bloom

Alec White can remember the exact moment when it was he fell head over heels in love with peonies. He’d just left his career as a lawyer, bought a bedding plant nursery and was trying his hand at growing a whole suite of perennials, working out where his milieu would be in this new world. “I can remember walking across the nursery thinking what is that flower?” he explains. “It had command of the whole nursery, it was head and shoulders above everything else.” And just like that Alec had found his love.

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It starts, he says, with anticipation. “There is a real occasion with a peony coming into flower. Those buds heralding something quite spectacular. In six weeks, they go from nothing to over three-foot-tall, and then those decadent, over-the-top flowers, so full of scent. They are sensational; they bombard your senses.”

Twelve years later and his Primrose Hall Nursery has more than 280 cultivars in production, holds the National Collection of Intersectional Peonies and a coveted shiny gold medal from the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. He also has the beginnings of Britain’s first peony breeding programme, which he says is a complicated business. “Peony seeds need to go through a double vernalisation,” he explains. “Then you need to wait another five years to see if the flower is worth anything. Then you’ve got to bulk it up, either the slow way of dividing every two years or the short cut of tissue culture. I’ll be lucky to get anything in my own life time.” But we all know what love will drive you to do.

Peonies are decadent things that come with a price tag. You may have heard how early intersectional peonies originally changed hands for £70,000 although now that has come down to a £60 bargain, but Alec has a few sought-after intersectionals that change hands for £500. Herbaceous and tree peonies are much more reasonably priced and particularly when you consider that they can last from 40 to 50 years or sometimes even longer. “There are varieties that last over 100 years,” he says. “And with peonies, as long as you get establishing right, they just get better every year.”

Alec White of Primrose Hall Peony Nursery
Alec White of Primrose Hall Peony Nursery
© Richard Bloom

How to care for peonies

Get the right plant

Peonies may look high maintenance with those blousy blooms, but Alec is evangelical that they are truly the opposite. “All peonies are really low maintenance, if you get three things right,” he says. “First, it is all about the right plant. You need to buy an establish plant that will flower and you can’t tell from the top growth, it’s about what’s happening below.” Herbaceous and intersectional peonies won’t flower until they are five years old, tree peonies take at least seven to eight years. “Once they are established, they’ll look after themselves, with you having to do very little.

Pests?

They don’t get eaten by slugs or snails, or rabbits or deer.

Soil?

Peonies will grow in any reasonable soil.  They need a sunny spot in any reasonable garden soil, but that soil does need to be free draining. “If it’s sandy or thin, then feed once a year with well-rotted manure,” advises Alec.

Primrose Hall Peony Nursery
From its home in Bedfordshire, Primrose Hall Nursery offers a huge range of rare and collectable peonies, including herbaceous, tree and intersectional peonies, and is starting the first British peony breeding programme.
© Richard Bloom

Get the planting depth right for peonies

“They must be planted at the correct depth,” Alec explains. “The crown doesn’t want to be any more than 5cm below the ground because it needs to get cold in winter. It has to have a good eight weeks below 15°C to flower well.” For tree peonies, Alec recommends planting so that the graft union is 10-15cm below the surface, this will force the graft to send out roots and make a stronger plant.

Staking peonies

Herbaceous peonies will need staking and this really needs to be done by May as they tend to rocket out the ground and it’s hard to stake gracefully come June. Intersectional peonies, however, have no need for staking, which is one of their many benefits. n

What are intersectional peonies?

Also known as Itoh peonies after the Japanese breeder Toichi Itoh who created the first cross in the 1940s, intersectional peonies are cross between herbaceous and tree peonies. The idea being that you get the best of the both worlds, massive fragrant flowerheads that sit above the finely cut foliage, typical of tree peonies, but with the compact growth habit of an herbaceous peony. They tend to grow 60-90cm tall and are tough things more tolerant of cold weather than a tree peony, but not fazed by heat either. On top of that, Alec says they have incredible autumn foliage: “You get these greens, oranges and burgundies in such rich hues; herbaceous peonies just don’t colour up in the same way.” You also get between 40 and 50 flowers on mature plants and the flowers will last twice as long as ordinary peonies. “They go on for four to five weeks, with lots of small side buds and they are so fragrant too.” They’re also versatile, being as happy in a big pot as in the border. They are rare, beautiful blooms that are complicated to breed and that is reflected in the price tag, but take care of them at the beginning and for years to come you will have something to marvel at every summer.

17 intersectional peonies

1

Paeonia ‘Sonoma Sun’

Paeonia 'Sonoma Sun'
© Richard Bloom

Has single, yellow flowers with a red heart that fade away to reveal a clear, yellow flower, like a good sun rise. Mid-season flowering. 85cm.

2

Paeonia ‘Morning Lilac’

Paeonia 'Morning Lilac'
© Richard Bloom

An intersectional peony with semi double, strong purple flowers that have darker edges. Also provides good autumn foliage colour. Mid-season. 75cm.

3

Paeonia ‘Sonoma Welcome’

Paeonia 'Sonoma Welcome'
© Richard Bloom

Has single flowers that open apricot, but then fade to yellow, and are brushed with light-red flares.Mid-season. 80cm.

4

Paeonia ‘Sonoma Opal’

Paeonia 'Sonoma Opal'
© Richard Bloom

Peony with single, bubble-gum pink flowers that fade to the outer edges with a buttercup-yellow centre. Mid-season. 75cm.

5

Paeonia ‘Watermelon Wine’

Paeonia 'Watermelon Wine'
© Richard Bloom

Has dark, raspberry-pink flowers with a dark wine centre. Semi-double with golden anther. Mid-season. 90cm.

6

Paeonia ‘Sonoma Yedo’

Paeonia 'Sonoma YeDo'
© Richard Bloom

Very double, extreme perhaps, yellow flowers that are known for their long blooming period. Early mid-season. 70cm.

7

Paeonia ‘Sonoma Rosy Future’

Paeonia 'Sonoma Rosy Future'
© Richard Bloom

Single flowers that have dark-rose petals with flares of a darker rose. Unusually, the petals are notched. Mid-season. 1m.

8

Paeonia ‘Love Affair’

Paeonia 'Love Affair'
© Richard Bloom

A semi-double, white flower (there aren’t many whites among the intersectionals) with a good vigour and easy flowering. Early mid-season. 70cm.

 

9

Paeonia Queen of Hearts

Paeonia 'Queen of Hearts'
© Richard Bloom

A very rare intersectional peony that at £499 will steal your wallet as well as your heart. Dreamy semi-double, creamy flowers with a raspberry centre and golden anthers. Mid-season. 75cm.

10

Paeonia ‘Sonoma Velvet Ruby’

Paeonia 'Sonoma Velvet Ruby'
© Richard Bloom

Offers large, single, deep wine-red flowers and finely cut green foliage that turns red in autumn. Mid-season. 75cm.

11

Paeonia ‘Singing in the Rain’

Paeonia 'Singing in the Rain'
© Richard Bloom

An Intersectional peonywith delicate, romantic, semi-double flowers in coral pink with pale lemon anthers. 75cm.

12

Paeonia ‘Tolomeo No. 59’

Paeonia 'Tolomeo No. 59'
© Richard Bloom

A loose, semi-double with dusky, ruby-red flowers produced over a long period. Mid-season. 1m.

13

Paeonia ‘Lollipop’

Paeonia 'Lollipop'
© Richard Bloom

Striking, with apricot, double flowers that have flecks of purple and a subtle scent. The finely cut foliage turns a lovely red in autumn. Mid-season. 75cm.

14

Paeonia ‘Sonoma Halo’

Paeonia 'Sonoma Halo'
© Richard Bloom

A fully double, yellow-flowered peony that has so many petals you can’t see its raspberry-red centre. Mid-season. 75cm.

15

Paeonia ‘Julia Rose’

Paeonia 'Julia Rose'
© Richard Bloom

Deep-cerise flowers that fade to raspberry and eventually cream. It has finely cut foliage that turns red in spring and autumn. Mid-season. 75cm.

16

Paeonia ‘Cora Louise’

Paeonia 'Cora Louise'
© Richard Bloom

Large, scented, pink flowers with a lavender edge and red, purple flares. Its finely cut foliage turns red in spring and autumn. Mid-season. 90cm.

17

Paeonia ‘Old Rose Dandy’

Paeonia 'Old Rose Dandy'
© Richard Bloom

Has lovely open blooms that open rose with a brick-red centre and then fade to yellow over time. It has a very good fragrance. 80cm.

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USEFUL INFORMATION Address Primrose Hall, Nursery at Dingley Dell, Toddington Road, Westoning, Bedfordshire MK45 5AH. Tel 01525 878924. Web primrosehallpeonies.co.uk