Chesterton Tribune

May is the month for flowers

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Of Wonders and Weeds


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 style.

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 for additional cultural information.

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 corner.

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 University.

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.


Posted 5/30/2003