Of Wonders and Weeds
By PAULENE POPARAD
May is for ..... lilacs and peonies.
Both are seeing a resurgence in interest, and deservedly so. New, improved
varieties are popping up in greater numbers at local garden centers, and
larger nursery operations like Oakes Daylilies in Tennessee, a fine daylily
source, has sent out its first peony and tree peony catalog after importing
and building stock for the past four years.
If gardening, like fashion, is cyclical, peonies are definitely back in
What’s not to like about a herbaceous peony, known as the century plant,
which can last in the garden for more than 100 years? I have Grandma
Poparad’s peonies from the farm that are probably at least 50 years old, and
peonies I moved from my sister Nancy’s house 22 years ago.
A distinction should be made between the smaller, herbaceous standard peony
that wilts to the ground each winter and the shrubby tree peony that has
woody branches and can grow up to five feet high and as wide.
According to nursery owner Ken Oakes, “The first time I saw a tree peony I
didn’t know what it was. I never saw anything like it. They’re incredibly
beautiful.” I concur. Three of my four tree peonies are blooming, one with
crepe paper-like raspberry pink flowers 10 inches across.
Ken said Chinese tree peonies are grown on their own roots while Japanese
tree peonies are grafted onto herbaceous peony roots. That’s why Chinese
tree peonies should be planted with the crown a scant one inch below the
ground and Japanese tree peonies planted with the graft union about five
inches below ground. Visit www.oakespeonies.com for additional cultural
Sometimes Japanese tree peonies will throw a shoot from the herbaceous peony
rootstock. My pink tree peony last year sent up one such shoot; this year
it’s three, all with regular peony flower buds. Will they open? It didn’t
last year. If the herbaceous shoots are increasing, Ken recommended cutting
them at the ground so as not to lessen the grafted tree peony’s vigor.
When it comes to tree peonies, you pay for the parentage.
My pink tree peony, which cost about $25, merely says “two-tone tree peony”
and paeonia suffruticosa, the botanical name. Its flowers look nothing like
those pictured or described on the label, yet they are no less beautiful.
But the more expensive, named tree peonies I have look exactly as they did
in the catalog and I’d like to think their plant ancestors were grown in an
emperor’s secret garden centuries ago.
Both forms of peonies should be moved in the early fall, although potted
varieties can be planted any time of year. Despite their sometimes
staggering price, perhaps the most fun about tree peonies is it’s a hoot to
grow something called ‘Night Glow on the Sacred Mountain’.
A heady fragrance is wafting in our back door from two dwarf Korean lilac
(syringa meyeri ‘Palibin’) blooming nearby. These are more compact than the
traditional lilac bush and have small, rounded leaves. Hardy and reliable, a
strip mall in Illinois uses dwarf Koreans as hedges.
A really fine plant for me this spring is the perennial geranium phaeum
‘Sambor,’ its jagged green leaves showing a central splotch of
chocolate-purple topped by small maroon flowers at 20 inches. I’m also
excited about this year’s new geranium pratense ‘Hocus Pocus’, its more
finely cut leaves mostly burgundy purple with green flares. The flowers are
said to be larger than usual. Both prefer sun or partial shade.
I got the latter plant at Samuelson’s greenhouses in Valparaiso, which had a
diverse selection of perennials. A worker there who was clipping off dead
branch tips and I were bemoaning the fact many plants are showing more
die-back than usual this spring; he said plant material coming from other
parts of the country shows it, too.
This past weekend I had the good fortune to tour the fine garden of Dave and
Bev Stegeman featuring many hostas and shade companions. Dave said several
of their mature hostas that should be much larger specimens by now are very
small as if starting all over again, some due to the weather and some
because they dislike being divided, he speculated.
I got to see Bev’s own powdery blue, corrugated ‘Skylight’ hosta that will
be introduced next year. I can’t wait. I’m also very pleased with the lovely
Olga Petryszyn introduction ‘Dawn’s Early Light’ that I purchased from her
last year. The eye-catching unusual color and form really light up a dark
This month’s welcome rain merits a close inspection of roses now for the
first sign of black spot and other problems. Be prepared to pick off suspect
leaves, usually near the bottom, and to use the chemical or organic
fungicide of your choice.
May means my weekly gardening clippings from the Citrus Springs, Fla.
newspapers will end as friend Chuck Burger returns to spend his summer here.
The articles are a peek at the commitment it takes to garden year-round, and
the diversity of plants --- and pests and diseases --- southern gardeners
have to deal with. Thanks, Chuck, and you and Olie have a safe trip home.
I recently had the opportunity to read Charles B. Heiser’s new 260-page book
“Weeds in My Garden: Observations on Some Misunderstood Plants” by Timber
Press. It’s not your typical weed identification manual. The book leaves one
with a lot more respect for weeds (did you know tons of dandelion root are
imported to the United States for use in diet and digestive drinks and other
tonics?) and a realization that some of our favorite flowers should in fact
be considered weeds.
Why is it we curse thistle but not ditch lilies? Pigweed but not summer
phlox? Mint but not hollyhock? Wild carrot but not coreopsis? All have the
propensity to multiply faster than we’d like, yet it’s the weeds that have
gotten the bad rap, says Heiser, a professor emeritus of Botany at Indiana
Taltree Arboretum’s information-packed spring/summer Tag Along publication
features spring beauty (claytonia virginica), an otherwise-delightful small
ephemeral wildflower that is coming up everywhere in my east border. I now
consider it a weed.
Heiser shares interesting observations on about 140 weed plants. Most are
identified by name, time and place, description and virtues, the latter
filled with fun historical trivia. I won’t boil and eat the chestnut-like
spring beauty corms, as Heiser says I could do, but I will stop and admire
them a split second longer before I rip them out.
Mark your calendars for June 28, the Duneland Garden Club’s first public
garden walk. Six local gardens will be featured. Visiting someone else’s
garden is a great way to jump start ideas for your own.
May 31 at 10 a.m. the Portage Garden Club will host a seminar focusing on
herbs, hosta and roses at the Regional Federal Credit Union, 389 W. U.S. 6
east of Portage High School. Space is limited and reservations for the event
are required. Please contact 219-845-5654 or 762-2930.
So what are the two most important things I wouldn’t garden without? Gloves
and eyeglasses. I don’t step outside without them.
The glasses are either sunglassses or my really huge 1980’s reading glasses
with sturdy plastic lenses and frames. Many times I’ve saved myself from eye
injury by wearing them, and since I never know if I will grab a bit of old
glass or rusty nail (or, gulp, a vole or toad) when doing chores with my
hands, the rubberized mud gloves provide a barrier.
I may use a shovel or trowel or wheelbarrow on any given day, but every day
I am outfitted in my glasses and gloves.