Sandy’s Garden ... Peonies

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There was a really striking display stand in the Floral Hall at this year’s Gardening Scotland.

The event, held during the first weekend in June at the Royal Highland Agricultural and Show Society’s showground at Ingliston on the western outskirts of Edinburgh included and amazing display of Binny Plants. Binny Plants is a family run business that specialises in unusual hardy perennials and peonies. It is based at Ecclesmachan, near Uphall in West Lothian … very handy for gardeners who live in and around Falkirk … and is run by Billy Carruthers, the company name Binny Plants coming from their postal address, which is Binny Estate, Ecclesmachan.

Binny’s, or Billy’s … whichever you prefer … splendid display stand featured a glorious display of the most magnificent peonies, or peony roses as my late mother used to call them, the link between the peony and the rose apparently coming from the fact that a Chinese emperor once called peonies ‘roses of spring’. The Chinese, who have cultivated this flower for at least two millennia, call it “sho-yo,” which means ‘the beautiful.’ and it is considered the flower of prosperity; and it most assuredly did bring prosperity to the grower of a single specimen which was reputedly sold in China for 100 ounces of gold which, at today’s prices, is the equivalent of almost £100 000!

Paeonia, to give it its proper botanical name, is the only member of the family Paeoniaceae. It is native to Asia, Southern Europe and Western North America and was valued by past generations in China for its supposed utility to farmers, who believed that it protected shepherds and their flocks and preserved the harvest from danger, particularly the threat posed by storms. In rural villages in the past, Chinese mothers often made necklaces of peony seeds which, hung round their infants’ necks, offered protection from the “evil eye”, the look that is said to bring bad luck to the person at whom it is directed. In an extension of this belief, a bundle of peony roots held above a person’s head was thought to cure insanity; and the plant was also useful in seeing off demons and in preventing nightmares,

The contemporary gardener is most likely to know peonies as herbaceous perennial plants which grow to a height of something between eighteen inches and five feet in height … between half a metre and one-and-a-half metres … although there are varieties which will grow to a height of between five and ten feet… one-and-a-half to three metres … known, for obvious reasons as ‘tree peonies’. Their large, often double, white, pink or red flowers provide a wonderful display of colour in the late spring and early summer, with the added bonus that many varieties are sweetly-scented. Now add on the facts that peonies are very hardy plants which actually enjoy a cold winter; that they tolerate a wide range of soils; and that they are renowned for their longevity and it is easy to understand why gardeners like them.

Still, peonies do make some demands of the gardener; they do need a sunny or lightly-shaded habitat; they do need to be provided with as much water as they want, especially in the spring; they do need fallen leaves and other plant debris cleared away from their emerging shoots in the spring, for plant debris carries Botrytis spores which harm the plant; and they do need a level of patience, for newly-planted peonies are unlikely to flower in their first year and transplanted peonies may want two years in their new home before they will flower. But a peony will amply reward the gardener who gives it a little tender, loving care.

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society