This Itoh peony is a variety called Lolliepop. (Getty Images)

This Itoh peony is a variety called Lolliepop. (Getty Images)

Bushy with big blooms, Itohs blend the best of herbaceous, tree peonies

A bit spendy, this sought-after hybrid, with its multi-colored flowers and lush foliage, offers plenty of bang for your buck.

By Trevor Cameron / The Golfing Gardener

During the months of May and June, one of the all-time favorite plants of local gardeners, the peony, is bursting into bloom.

Peonies come in many excellent varieties, including herbaceous cottage types in all sorts of colors (and varying fragrances) as well as larger-growing tree types. I would never scold anyone for growing either of these — since I do, as well — but I want to bring attention to another fabulous option: what is known as the intersectional or Itoh peony.

The Itoh originated in Japan in 1948 thanks to one man’s dedication and perseverance, Dr. Toichi Itoh, a noted Japanese plantsman and botanist. Trying to find the perfect hybrid, he spent decades crossing pollen from herbaceous and tree peonies. After literally thousands of attempts, he finally achieved success and produced some 36 seedlings to trial and evaluate. This was no small feat, and frankly a task that no one thought could be done. It took decades longer for these plants to find their way to the West, and now they have become more available to gardeners in all corners of the globe.

I personally discovered the Itoh about 20 years ago on a trip to British Columbia and was instantly fascinated. They were not something I had ever seen in the “states.” Please, don’t tell anyone, but I decided to smuggle a small plant across the border for my own garden — an old variety called Kopper Kettle, which sports a coppery orange flower. Luckily, the plant police did not arrest me, and it is still thriving in my yard in Everett to this day. I waited some seven years to get a flower, but it has bloomed beautifully for me year after year since.

Now, in all seriousness, I bring this up not to get in trouble with the USDA or customs officials — though I am sure the statute of limitations has passed — but rather to highlight what can be found right here, right now. The selection of Itohs at local garden centers is both impressive and varied, and now they’re sold as much larger specimens that bloom immediately.

Most often, I see large, five-gallon size Itohs covered in multiple blooms priced in the $120 neighborhood, which is not cheap, but considering I spent $35 on a one-gallon 20 years ago and waited seven years for flowering, after adjusting for inflation, I would say that is a much better deal than I received, right? I remember reading, years ago, that the first plants produced were sold for well over a thousand dollars, an astronomically large amount some 70 years ago, so we are all getting off easy today.

Over the years, I have added others to my own garden, and I simply love all of them. Like the herbaceous types, Itohs are short, bushy growers that do not require staking, yet they sport the large, magnificent blooms of the tree peony. Itohs also exhibit exquisite tree peony foliage that turns lovely colors each autumn. Flowers are unique to each named cultivar of course, but one of the cool attributes is their multi-colored flowers that seem to evolve into different tones each day and will often have some fragrance. After continued modern introductions, our choices increase exponentially year after year. Once blooms are spent, they will sport interesting seeds, which I often leave on my plant over summer to add interest, or they can easily be pruned off if you like.

Now let’s get down to business and talk about a few of the cool flavors available in garden centers this spring.

Scrumdidleumptious: Beautiful semi-double flower with light fragrance; color is peachy yellow with pink tip color painted on each petal.

Scarlet Heaven: Bright, large, single, pure scarlet-red flowers with yellow stamens in the center and light fragrance. One of the best true reds out there.

Gordon Simonson: Ginormous semi-double, fuchsia-pink flowers with light lavender ring and yellow stamens in the center; very striking in bloom.

Yumi: Yellow is the color to find, and this semi-double yellow stunner has light fragrance and large flowers. Its name means “beauty.”

Duchesse de Lorraine: This is pastel yellow on steroids, with huge double flowers and fragrance, as well. The first true double, yellow Itohs.

All intersectional peonies are easy to grow in a well-drained garden location with sun or partial sun (six hours or so minimum). They reach maybe 3 feet tall and require minimal maintenance. I would recommend feeding them with an organic rose/flower-type fertilizer once in February and again in June for best performance. Not much pruning should ever be necessary; I simply check all mine coming out of winter and cut back any dead wood I find. If extreme winter temperatures are an issue, a nice mulching in fall will help protect the root system. Like all peonies, the tuber can be divided, but remember that this is a chore best done only in late fall.

Finally, I have one more radically odd tip for those brave enough to try it: If you cut yours back and deadhead it after bloom, you will often see it repeat flower in later summer and fall.

Trust me, if you swallow the price tag and grab one (or more) for your garden, you will be mesmerized, like me, by their beauty year after year.

Free class

Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville will host “Hot Summer Vegetables” at 10 a.m. on Saturday, May 18. For more information or to sign up, go to www.sunnysidenursery.net/classes.

Trevor Cameron is a certified professional horticulturist (CPH) and serves as general manager for Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville. He can be reached at sunnysidenursery@msn.com.

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