Interview with the the Peony Society of Sweden

We had the pleasure of connecting with Leena, the President and founder of The Swedish Peony Society. The society is located in Mariestad, a town in southern Sweden. Mariestad is located on the eastern shore of vast Lake Vänern, which is dotted with small islands.

Together with the Finnish subsidiary Suomen Pionistit (Finnish Pionists), they are the world's largest peony society with approx. 1200 members! With over 25+ years of expertise in growing peonies, Leena's wealth of knowledge is truly remarkable. She tends to a splendid collection of approximately 250 peonies, which grace her garden with their vibrant blooms every summer.

Peony Association Sweden

What makes it even more delightful is that the society welcomes visitors to their open garden from May to June, and entry is free of charge as they operate as a non-profit organization. Naturally, we couldn't resist the opportunity to engage Leena in an interview, as her extensive experience with such a diverse range of peonies piqued our curiosity.

Hi Leena! Or in Swedish: Hej!
Let us start off with this: We greatly appreciate your efforts in educating us, along with our DutchGrown visitors and customers, about growing peonies. Thank you for sharing your valuable knowledge!
Hello Pieter and thank you for this opportunity to spread some peony knowledge!

1. What is your favorite peony variety?
I do love peonies that need no support, itoh peonies (intersectionals) are my special favourites, they are beautiful, healthy and they can be grown even in the northern parts of Sweden. Also low, and/or sturdy lactifloras (‘Ma Petite Cherie’, ‘Petite Porcelain’, ‘Jan van Leeuwen’) are close to my heart. Beautiful, pastel-coloured and soft pink hybrids make my heart beat a little extra, ‘Pastelegance’ being one of the favourites.

2. How did you get into peonies years back? What was the first variety you grew?
I lived in an area with lots of roedeer which ate up all my roses, so I started to grow peonies instead. My very first peony was the lovely, very fragrant ‘Festiva Maxima’.

3. Is it easy to grow peonies and beginner gardener-friendly? Can I give them a shot even if I lack gardening skills?
Peonies are perfect plants for beginners! If you do the so important planting of the peony root properly and right, you don’t have to fuss over your peony for many years ahead. The only thing you need to do is cut down the foliage in autumn.

4. We heard a peony can survive up to 100 years old. Is this true? Some other sources say only 20? What is the true story?
I have seen over 150-year-old tree peonies in China, but the herbaceous (which wither in autumn) last many decades, but will need dividing and rejuvenating by removing old, hard root parts during autumn if they won’t bloom so well anymore. There are many tales of P. officinalis ‘Rubra Plena’ having survived for decades by abandoned cottages in the countryside.

5. How deep do you usually plant peony roots?
The eyes (the pink or white shoots on the root) should not be deeper than max 5 cm under the soil level, the peonies won’t bloom if they are planted deeper.

6. What is your preferred type of soil?
I use soil for roses, as it has some clay in it. Otherwise, you can mix your own soil: bagged standard soil, some compost and a little bone meal which will stimulate blooming should be 2/3 of the final mix. 1/3 of the soil should come from the hole you have dug for the peony, so the density of the soil will be as close to the surrounding soil as possible. Otherwise, as the bagged soil consist of mostly peat here in the Nordics, the soil in the hole will be too wet.

Peony Society of Sweden

7. How often should we water newly planted peony roots?
If you plant your peony root in autumn, which is the very best time for it as the plant is dormant and the weather cool and moist, you just need to water the planting hole lightly. Autumn planting is, for both peonies and tulips, the best time as the plants produce over 80% of their feeder roots during this time. In spring, if the weather is very dry and sunny, you can water the plant, but test the moisture first beside the plant with your fingers. NOTE! Always water AROUND the plant, never on it. The feeder roots are around the plant. If the root crown (from which the stems grow) gets too wet, there is a big risk for peony mould (botrytis).

8. How long does it take for peony roots to establish? This depends on the root size and the ‘eyes’ on them, but in most cases, it can take 2 years for it to start blooming correct? Is there anything we can do to make it bloom the first season?
In order to succeed I recommend everyone to purchase a high-quality root from a renowned nursery or online vendor. The roots should have at least 3-5 eyes, and the mass of the thick storage roots should be able to provide nutrients to all eyes so they will develop. Many eyes, small roots, and all eyes will not develop. You cannot hurry peony blooming; it will bloom when it’s ready. Sometimes the peony will not bloom the first year, maybe the root mass is too small, or late frost has dried up the buds. So, if you want quick results, the only way is to get a large root of high quality and plant it carefully, following good advice. You won’t be disappointed.

9. What are some common diseases or pests that you encounter when growing peonies?
Peony mould (Botrytis paeonia) is a peony’s worst enemy. It seldom kills a plant but many stems with flower buds can be lost. A chilly, wet spring can make the mould attack living plants (it usually stays on the ground and feeds on withered leaves). The stem under a developing bud can turn brownish grey of mould, and the bud hangs and dies, as water and nutrients can’t reach it. It is important to remove the withered stems and leaves during autumn, so botrytis won’t get any nourishment. Do not put the leaves and stems in your compost, the warmth cannot kill the mould spores! Soil should be well-drained and neither weeds nor plants are to grow under the peony. Do not use woodchips or bark under the peony. All these preserve moisture which the botrytis spores love. Leave proper space between peonies when you plant them together with either other peonies or large perennials. They should be planted in an airy place, so the plant gets a chance to dry up between rain showers.

10. What are the primary factors that contribute to the overall health and vitality of peonies?
The most important factor is that the root is vigorous and healthy, with no visible injuries. The planting location should have at least six hours of sun per day, and the soil must be well drained; water from for example melting snow should not remain on the surface. The distance between other peonies and large perennials is also a factor that will affect the peony’s well-being.

11. I am in a cold climate. Do I need to protect peony roots from frost, and cold temperatures when I plant the roots in autumn?
Peonies are tough plants! You don’t have to protect them from frost, on the contrary, they need some weeks of cold weather to bloom well! In the snow-rich parts of the country the snow cover will protect peonies. Otherwise, no cover is needed. Only if you plant woody peonies (tree peonies) in cold areas, the soil under them is good to cover with spruce boughs at least during the first two winters until the spring sun starts to warm the soil.

12. What are some signs of healthy peony roots? What should I be looking at to ensure I have good quality roots?
A peony root should smell fresh (a little sour), is vigorous and has no hacks or visible injuries, no mould should be on the root surface. No wrinkly, dry roots should ever be accepted. Fresh roots snap when breaking a storage root, dry ones only bend. Feel the weight, a fresh root feels a bit heavy in your hand, an old, dry one is very light.

13. Do you grow any other bulbs or plants that work well with peonies?
Spring bulbs (tulips, narcissi, crocus, etc) are perfect to plant between and behind peonies and as peonies grow taller, they will cover the withering leaves of the spring bloomers. Lilies are my favourites – they bloom directly after peonies. Non-invasive perennials such as amsonia, gillenia, non-climbing, low clematis, and different hostas. Lavender is perfect for the sunny foreground of the flowerbed.

14. Do you recommend growing peony roots in containers?
No. Peonies can manage up to three years in a very large containers, but it will be difficult to determine how much water it needs. Risk for overwatering is always there. The roots will grow large, the blooming will get poor and before long the peony must be planted in the garden.

15. Can I plant peony roots near trees or other plants?
I would rather not plant them too close. Shrubs, trees and large perennials will fight for nutrients, so it’s always best to keep a proper distance between them.

16. Do you plant your peonies also in shady areas?
You can plant them in a shadier location, but peonies need at least six hours of sunshine per day. If less, they often grow taller and have fewer flowers, but the flowers will keep longer.

17. What are some common mistakes to avoid when growing peonies?
1) planting the peony too deep, and it will not bloom 2) planting it in a wet area or overwatering it 3) planting it in a location with full shade.

18. How and when do I cut my peonies?
Always best to cut down the stems in autumn, this will diminish the risk for mould. Peonies need no winter cover. Use a sharp secateur or a knife. If you cut the stems in spring, you can damage the new shoots.

The society has an extensive global network with connections to renowned experts in all things related to peonies. Their vibrant Facebook group offers a lively platform to swiftly find answers to queries, identify unknown peonies, share captivating peony photos, and connect with fellow peony enthusiasts.
Please visit the website of the Swedish Peony Society for more information and to contribute by becoming a member.

Peonies Society of Sweden