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GARDENING: Itoh peonies worth a pretty penny

Hybrid flowers bloom unusual colours, size each season

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Itoh peony in the garden. Named after the Japanese nurseryman Toichi Itoh, the Itoh peony is a cross between herbaceous and tree peonies. Bushy, vigorous, and stunning.

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Morning Lilac Itoh Peony. This highly sought-after peony features deep lavender pink flowers surrounding gold stamens.

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Bartzella Itoh Peony. Bright, lemon-yellow double blossoms above dark green, deeply dissected foliage — a classic for your garden.

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The Cora Louise Itoh Peony grows to 24 to 36 inches and can produce up to 50 semi-double, beautifully fragrant blossoms in a single season! Ideal for cutting.

My grandmother loved her peonies.

Every spring, just as the last of the winter snow vanished and allowed the exposed soil to be warmed by the amiable rays of the sun, she would tend to her peonies. Armed with her secret mixture of bonemeal and kitchen compost from the "special soil making pile," she would breathe life into her awakening beauties.

Then, later in June, with the plants securely staked, the peony heads would burst into huge blossoms of red and pink and white. For about two weeks those peonies were the talk of the neighbourhood, and grandmother, blooming with pride, would joyously snip a bouquet for all who passed by.

My grandmother grew Paeonia lactiflora, the good old-fashioned garden peony. She would have been astonished at the different varieties and spectacular colours of peonies offered at garden centres these days. In her wildest dreams she would not have imagined copper- or yellow-coloured flowers. In her day, it was just unheard-of.

The big news in peonies is Itoh, or intersectional hybrid peonies. They are a cross between the herbaceous varieties grandmother grew and tree peonies.

Prairie gardeners are not that familiar with Paeonia suffruticosa, more commonly known as tree peonies. They are not fully hardy here and require protection from the late spring frost. But tree peonies are a very old plant and have been grown in China for over 1,000 years. They are woody shrubs that can reach heights of three metres with massive flowers.

But let's get back to the Itoh peony.

Toichi Itoh's life was spent trying to take the best elements of each parent peony to create a Queen of Peonies. Unfortunately, he died in 1956, eight years before the crosses he developed were successful in blooming. The new hybrid peonies that he created were absolutely amazing. The Itoh peonies bloom in late spring for about two to three weeks and do not require staking. Even though their flowers are abundant and huge, up to 25 cm in diameter, the branch structure is strong enough to support their weight.

The new hybrids grow in a domed shape like the tree peony but stay just under one metre, making them a show-stopper at the front of the garden. The grey-green foliage is finely cut, very disease-resistant and lasts until the fall.

The sheer number of evenly spaced blossoms is spectacular and the flower colours are breathtaking. The double, semi-double or single blooms depending on the variety, can range in hues from the deep fuchsia shade of "morning lilac" to the double lemon-yellow ball with red flares of "bartzella." Also of note are the large, lightly scented semi-double flowers of "Cora Louise," which are white with dark lavender flares. This is an especially prolific plant that can produce up to 50 blossoms in a single season.

Another exciting variety is the "Julia Rose," which has huge single to semi double flowers that change colour -- blooms open to a cherry red turning to orange and maturing on to yellow. This creates one plant with a gorgeous mix of various-coloured blossoms.

Care of the Itoh peony is very similar to its garden peony parent. Plant them in a sunny to partially shaded location -- an eastern exposure would be perfect -- and make sure the soil is well-drained. Grandmother's recipe of a little kitchen compost and a handful of bonemeal will keep the blooms plentiful. Do not use manure as this can promote botrytis blight, a disease where the buds rot before they mature.

Planting depth is critical. If the roots are planted too shallow they will freeze out over winter but, if they are planted too deep, the plant will either have a delayed bloom or may never bloom. The proper planting depth is two inches of loam above the crown, and be careful not to break off any buds. Also, water well in the first season in order to establish a healthy, deep root system.

Unlike herbaceous peonies, it's best to deadhead the Itoh peony since they flower for an extended time. Leave the stalks up in the fall as this allows the plant to receive more snow protection around the crown. The Itoh peony is as hardy as its parent, the garden peony, and needs no additional winter preparation. Good snow cover is sufficient.

Finally, cut the stems to two to three in the early spring to begin another growing year.

While the Itoh peony has come down in price since a decade ago when some roots were close to $1,000, a good specimen that will bloom in the next year or two will still cost $60 to $75, making them a precious and prized garden addition. They are a long-lived plant, and the tremendous beauty of the Itoh will make a gardener proud. Just like grandmother.

Lisa Kackenhoff is the Marketing and Garden Centre Manager at Kackenhoff Nurseries Ltd., located eight kilometres south of the Perimeter on Highway 75.

The Can-West Iris Society will hold its 4th Annual Iris Show on Sunday, June 12 from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the Bourkevale Community Centre, 100 Ferry Rd. Admission is free. For more details, please contact B.J. Jackson, show chair, at jacksonb@mts.netRoadSC