The afternoon sun is dappling the gardens at White Flower Farm, and visitors on this day in late May might find themselves drawn to a quiet corner where two giant Lilacs stand watch over their precious compatriots – a plethora of Peonies. In a partially shaded bed at the southeast corner of the gardens, visitors would be greeted by a diversity of Peonies: Tree Peonies, Herbaceous Peonies, and Intersectional or Itoh Peonies (a hybrid between the former two types). The wide-ranging selection means there will be a long season of bloom, from the earliest Tree varieties in mid- to late May to the hybrids and finally their Herbaceous cousins in early to mid-June. On this afternoon, lucky strollers are in time to catch the spectacular first act of this seasonal flower show: the blossoming of the Tree Peonies. These woody shrubs produce huge, silky flowers, and mature plants may carry as many as 50 of these exquisite blooms. But there is more afoot – literally. At the base of each Peony, it’s easy to spy other botanical happenings.
The pearly white blooms of Paeonia suffruticosa ‘Ezra Pound,’ nearing the end of their exhibition, are mirrored by Trillium grandiflorum ‘Flore Pleno’ growing in shady recesses around the taller plant. The bright white, double flowers of the Trillium echo the showy Peony blossoms above, offering a pleasantly harmonious portrait.
A bit farther down the garden path, there is a second, well-planned vignette. This time the palette has transitioned to delicate shades of pink. The blossoms of Paeonia suffruticosa ‘Seidai,’ another spectacular Tree Peony, sweetly frame sprays of Bleeding Heart (Dicentra spectabilis).
Nearby, the rosy tinges of Pulmonaria ‘Raspberry Splash,’ a colorful variety of Lungwort, continue the pink theme while the plant’s silver-spotted leaves add extra interest.
Groundcovers with exceptional leaf color provide another clever way to hide the bare patches of earth around Peonies while creating visually striking color combinations. Two such companion plants are Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla mollis) and Coral Bells (Heuchera). The minty-chartreuse leaves of the former are a perfect complement for Peonies with deep magenta flowers, such as this variety of Rock’s Tree Peony, Paeonia rockii ‘Zi Lian.’ For a different flavor, pair with the rusty-leaved Heuchera ‘Mahogany,’ which accentuates the gold-and-red centers of this Peony’s flowers.
The journey is not yet complete. Just around the bend, a mauve-pink flower catches the eye. Next to it are the remains of what must have been a lovely sight – a stem of spent Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica). Paeonia suffruticosa ‘Leda’ was probably only in bud at the time those familiar, blue-and-lavender bells were in bloom. Still, the present scene is no less charming.
As this particular garden walk comes to an end, there is a last treasure to behold: the weighty double flowers of a purple-red Tree Peony, Paeonia suffruticosa ‘Rimpo.’ In the foreground, stems of a white variety of Spanish Bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica) produce a dynamic contrast with the velvety dark Peony blossoms. A background of False Forget-me-not, Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost,’ completes the picture by adding frosted green leaves and frothy, sky-blue flowers to the mix.
No matter which or how many Peonies are in bloom when you visit the garden (in-person or virtually), companion plants go a long way toward adding season-long, and even year-round, interest to a single genus planting that otherwise hinges upon peak flowering time. Whether you catch Peonies’ emerging reddish stems, their finely cut foliage and ball-shaped buds, or their magnificent blooms, this garden promises to open your eyes to exciting combinations that are always fresh.