Peony Flowers in April? I Mean...March!

Ever wish you kept better notes, so you could quickly pull up facts about a particular gardening year?

Paeonia mlokosewitschii seedling

(Photo: Paeonia mlokosewitschii seedling)

If my memory serves me well, it was late April, 2011 when the Paeonia mlokosewitschii finally bloomed that long, slow, cool spring. It was the spring when the plants seemed to stand still for days, with virtually no growth noted during two to three weeks of cool temperatures during April and early May.  Those early species’ bloom like clockwork on or about April 15 and that year they were two weeks late.  

Naturally, months earlier, when my niece was selecting the perfect wedding date for peonies galore, I had assured her that May 23rd was an excellent choice, because most years the peonies are really popping after May 15th.  She had her heart set on coral and pink peonies. No problem, even if they are 10 days late, we’ll have them, I told her.  Well, as the days dwindled closer to the event, we got a little nervous. The early semi-doubles and doubles were all running two weeks late.

Luckily we have friends who also raise peonies and they grow a few each spring under hoop houses that are temporarily covered in plastic for a few weeks. They were able to supplement our limited supply of ‘Athena’ and ‘Sugar ‘n Spice’ peonies with some stunning corals. At the church, each pew up the center aisle was adorned with a basket of peonies. I overheard an Aunt who walked into the reception and exclaimed “Why, this is like walking into Better Homes and Gardens.”  Peonies were everywhere. The Bride got her peonies, and they were magnificent. 

Over the years I’ve seen the results of weather that cooled down and delayed the bloom season as much as two weeks; I’ve also seen the bloom arrive two weeks early when we had a warmer winter and early spring. After 16 years of growing peonies, I have seen as much as a 30 day swing in the arrival of peony flower season.

When a customer telephoned a couple of weeks ago and said, ‘I know this is a crazy question; but, with our early spring do you think there is any chance of peonies for an April 23rd wedding?’ I told her that was a long-shot and she’d best arrange for another type of flower. She’s thinking to use tulips; but, filled with hope, she plans to check back closer to the event - just in case there are peonies. Well, it just may not be a long-shot question this spring in Oregon.  

This year, like last season, we had a warmer winter and those Paeonia mlokosewitschii have been ready to break bud for a few days. Other early peonies with the sepals now opening include ‘Athena’, ‘Little Red Gem’, P. tenuifolia and ‘Sugar ‘n Spice’.  I may actually be able to supply a wedding in a week or so. Another species peony that we have growing in the shade is not quite there – and it has opened every year a few days prior to P. mlokosewitschii. Go figure.

Perhaps these very early bloomers were just at the right spot in the growth cycle when we had some warmer weather, as not all of our early varieties are this advanced.  With the fluctuation in the weather, many varieties of the mid and late season peonies are still very small and have barely started to grow. A few plants have yet to pop out of the ground. I am thankful for that – I always look forward to the longest peony flower season I can get. I’m greedy that way.  

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