Finally, peonies for Southern California climate!

Why do we want what we don’t have? We want curly hair if we have straight. We want a view when we live in the flats. We want peonies if we garden in Southern California while gardeners in other places only wished they gardened here.

Monrovia Nursery has shined the love on warm weather gardeners by offering us just about every plant we imagine we want. Newest in their lineup are Itoh peonies that bloom in warm climates like ours.

I’ve had good reports from Ron Vanderhoff – general manager at Roger’s Gardens — and Steve Hampson, past president of the American Daffodil Society. Both say that the Itoh peonies planted last year in Orange County gardens not only came back this spring, but are packed with buds ready to bloom.

Vice President of New Plants at Monrovia Nursery Nicholas Staddon says, “We do a lot of trialing and are always pushing the envelope to see where plants will live.

“When we came across the Itohs, I said ‘Let’s trail them in Southern California.’ We’ve had plants bloom against the San Gabriel Mountains and in warmer San Diego regions.”

Itohs have been around since the 1940s. In 1948, Toichi Itoh of Japan was the first to cross the tree peony with the herbaceous peony resulting in a sturdy plant called an intersectional. Itoh died shortly after his successful cross, and it took decades of selecting and more breeding by others to get Itoh peonies to the market.

A mature Itoh peony plant will bear up to 50 dinner-plate sized flowers once established. The intersectional brings the best of both worlds – big flowers from the tree peony family and the perennial habit passed down from the herbaceous sorts.

Itoh peonies bloom in mid-May, should be planted in full to half-day sun, need regular watering, and they need more care and water in hot weather.

They grow best in slightly acidic soils – easy to achieve by incorporating organic compost into the backfill or planting in pots.

Itoh peonies detest being moved – so make sure you situate your peony in the right spot from the start. And don’t think about dividing them in a few years – they rarely survive it.“If you’re not sure where to plant yours,” Staddon said, “plant them in containers that are at least 24-inches wide. They have a super root system.”In Oregon they can take full sun. In inland Orange County, they need morning sun, and along the coast they can probably take a few more hours of full sun per day. Staddon said they don’t like reflected heat from walls, walkways and driveways.

You must want an Itoh peony more than any plant in the world, because the cost is in the $80 to $100 range for a 5-gallon, three-year-old plant – incentive enough to grow them carefully. Pruning is a bit tricky. At the end of the season, say in November, you need to go down to the base of the plant and see how far back the stems have died. Prune existing stems 2-3 inches above where the woodiness has come to an end. You’ll also notice that much like an herbaceous peony, there might be new eyes also sprouting from the crown. Those will be new stems for next year.

Feed in very early spring, and continue every 40 days with an all purpose fertilizer through August. Staddon uses GroPower. Three hybrids are available in Southern California markets: Misaka, a peachy bloomer with orange eye; Takata, with rose-colored blossoms and yellow stamens; and Keiko, a pale rosy-pink.“Very rare in the peony world is that Keiko has secondary buds growing lower on the stems,” That gives you weeks worth of flowers.

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