Louis Raymond experiments in his own gardens like

a mad scientist, searching out plants that most people have

never seen before & figuring out how to make them perform.- The Boston Globe

…Louis Raymond ensures that trees can grow in Brooklyn…

or just about any other place where concrete consumes

the dirt and skyscrapers shield the sunshine.- USA Today

 
 

NEW Trips to Take!

Myrtle's easy when the conditions are right.

 
 
 
 

NEW Plants to Try!

Louis tries to capture the exact words to describe the fleeting but deep pleasures to be found in these Summer-into-Autumn incredibles.

 
 
 
 

New Gardening to Do!

Allergic to bees? You can still have an exciting garden, full of flowers and color and wildlife.

 
 
 
 

Plant Profiles

Black Panther tree peony

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Ruffly and smoldering, 'Black Panther' tree peonies are—at least for a few days—the highlight of the entire garden.  At a glance, the flower might seem to be just burgundy, but the petals are actually multi-colored, with red as well as pink jostling for your attention.

 

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The yolk-yellow stamens are especially well highlighted amid the dark petals.  

 

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Here's how to grow this classy shrub:

 

Latin Name

Paeonia 'Black Panther'

Common Name

Black Panther tree peony

Family

Paeoniaceae, the Peony family.

What kind of plant is it?

Hardy flowering shrub.

Hardiness

Zones 4 - 8.

Habit

Typical for a tree peony: Multi-stemmed, with no one stem predominant.

Rate of Growth

Medium.

Size in ten years

Five feet tall, three to five feet wide. 

Texture

Full.

Grown for

its flowers: The petals are such a deep burgundy they veer to ebony, making excellent contrast with the bright yellow of the stamens.  The flowers are semi-double but variable; the one photographed for this article is much fuller than is typical.  At five-to-six inches across, the flowers are large for any shrub but a tree peony; the flowers of some cultivars can be nearly twice as broad.

 

its flexibility about sun:  Although some species of herbaceous peony enjoy a bit of shade, the large-flowered hybrids are uncompromising in their need for sun, which can limit their potential locations as well as the height and gregariousness of their neighbors.  You can't mitigate the Summer-long display of ho-hum peony foliage by encouraging taller neighbors to grow over the clump:  Without full sun all season, next season's flowering is diminished.  It's no wonder that herbaceous peonies are often sited in cutting gardens, or grown as a mid-height Summer hedge with much shorter growth on either side.  Tree peonies are much more tolerant.  They accept full sun, but they don't require it.  Cultivars whose flowers are pastel or bicolor maintain their colors best when the bush is shaded, at least when in bloom; peony fetishists bring out special umbrellas just for the task.  The flowers of 'Black Panther' retain their saturation in sun or shade, so the bush is flexible about siting.

 

its self-reliance:  As is typical for both herbaceous and tree peonies, 'Black Panther' is content to grow for decades—even generations—with nothing more than occasional pruning of a stem tip that might have died. 

 

its deer-resistance:  As is typical for peonies, 'Black Panther' is not of interest to browsers.

Flowering season

Spring: mid-May here in Rhode Island. 

Color combinations

Seen head-on and at a glance, the unusually dark flowers seem able to converse only with red, orange, and yellow.  The latter is particularly easy, what with the prominent yolk-yellow of the peony's stamens.  'Black Panther' plays as well with these colors' brights as well as pastels, from lemon and orange sherbet to the fiery oranges, reds, and yellows of, say, Exbury azaleas, which are in bloom at the same time.  

 

When sun can warm the petals from the side or the back, their wilder nature is revealed.  Flowers that seemed, at a glance, to be only burgundy now reveal that some of their petals veer to scarlet, and others to—can it be?—cerise.  The pink-friendly side of 'Black Panther' can only be captured if the flowers can be studied as they were photographed here: Close enough to be backed by your hand.  But unless the pink of a neighboring plant is not just nearby but almost abutting, the connection will be difficult to pull off.   Pairings with hot colors are more readily visible and, so, are more effective when you're taking in more of the garden at a time than a close-up of a single flower.

Plant partners

Pairings with hot colors will show up at a normal viewing range, so neighbors that specialize in red, orange, and yellow are easily effective.  The season for tree peony flowers is so brief, though—for me, a week or so in May—that you won't create a match unless you partner the bush with species whose flowers are either in bloom at the very same time—literally, the same week—or that bloom for most of the month. 

 

No surprise, then, that I've planted my 'Black Panther' in my hot-bed of hot colors, the Red Garden where, you'd think, there would be the best chance that something—anything—that goes with burgundy and chrome yellow will be in bloom.  

 

But the challenge with any red garden is, well, the red.  Even if you define it as broadly as possible, from burgundy on one side through orange to yellow on the other, it's difficult to have enough of it, let alone week by week by week throughout the warm months.  Yes, there are a lot of options for Summer, which, in any event, is the season when any red garden must be as ruddy as possible.  I've tried to cover all the bases—annual, perennial, tropical, herbaceous, woody, and vining—with red-friendly cultivars of Dahlia, Monarda, Kniphofia, Asclepias, Rosa, Cestrum, Canna, Leonotis, Tithonia, Caesalpinia, Fuchsia, Ricinus, Cotinus, Galphemia, Campsis, Ipomoea, Eccremocarpus, Gladiolus, Hedychium, and Coleus.  That this list is both long as well as eccentric, however, also suggests how difficult it is to have a red garden that has a Summer-long display.

 

Indeed, achieving enough red-in-the-Summer "coverage" for the Red Garden has been such a steep (and still ascending) road that I've barely begun planting the red-in-the-Spring flowers that can party in mid-May with my 'Black Panther'.  So far, the Spring guest list includes just Chaenomeles 'Hollandia' and Podophyllum pleianthum.  My Warley epimediums—and epimediums in general—bloom too early, but would make an excellent weed-proof groundcover all around the base of any tree peony, whose bushes always tend toward bare ankles.  And with my rich and heavy soil, I've been unsuccessful at establishing oriental poppies, another flamboyant and hot-color May flower, which needs better drainage in the Winter than I'm able to provide.  That's possibly just as well, because their flowers are almost identical in form and size, let alone brevity, to those of 'Black Panther'. 


Clearly, the Chaenomeles and the Podophyllum are just the beginning of a Spring in the red garden that actually celebrates red, not just starts up the cycle of preparation and planting that gets the red garden ready for Summer.

 

In bloom at the same time as 'Black Panther', and in every hot color the peony flowers would synergize with, Exbury azaleas would seem a natural partner.  But they would be long out of bloom and, hence wasting valuable real estate, when any red garden worthy of the name must be at its peak, in August and September.  

 

The oriental poppies hint at the solution, in that they provide a big show in mid-Spring, and then they disappear underground, ceding the stage to what is, apparently, the crowd of red-friendly performers needed to create a red garden worthy of the name in Summer.  Plants with this here-just-for-Spring lifestyle are known as ephemerals.  Which ones might complement the 'Black Panther' flowers?  Although I recoil at the need to protect the bulbs from critters—let alone to replant them every Fall—tall hybrid tulips seem just what the doctor ordered.  The flower shape of lily-flowered forms seems particularly enlivening next to the round and heavy flowers of 'Black Panther': The petals themselves are pointed, and the flower narrows before the flaring-out of the petal tips. 

 

If my soil were drier and leaner, orange and yellow fritillarias would be another inspiration.  Red rhubarb is a third option: Both its purple-backed foliage and the spikes of tiny red flowers would engage with the massive maroon peony flowers, which are born on a bush whose foliage is, at least in comparison, downright ferny.  Alas, there are no Spring-blooming clematis in yellow or orange, or a red that isn't actually rose.  Now that I think of it, there aren't any clematis at all that bloom in orange or a red-that-isn't-actually-rose.

 

This Fall, then, I'll plant a few dozen lily-flowered tulips near my 'Black Panther'.   Stay tuned for the excitement next May.

Where to use it in your garden

The flowers of tree peonies are typically enormous and, often, a bit pendulous.  The temptation to cup a blossom in your hand is irresistible, which means that the shrubs should be sited within a few feet of paving or grass, or they should be supplied with a couple stepping stones if siting deeper into a bed is unavoidable.  But as astonishing as any tree peony is in bloom, it's somewhat of a snooze the other fifty-one weeks of the year.  The Winter aspect isn't great, either:  The branches appear both stiff and thick.  If you can manage it, site tree peonies elsewhere than the portions of your garden that you need to see day in, day out, as you access your house throughout the year.

Culture

A tree peony is fully prepared to outlive you, so treat it as a permanent plant, even a legacy.  Although it can be transplanted or divided, it never needs either; prepare the bed for the long-term.   If ever there were a time for your best compost and, especially, your most mounded-up bed profile, this is it: Tree peonies are even more fanatical about good drainage than herbaceous peonies. 

 

Fall planting is best.  Unlike herbaceous peonies, which usually fail to bloom if the crown is more than an inch underground, tree peonies need unusually deep planting.  They are propagated by grafting, and it's important to enable the graft to develop its own roots so that the shrub isn't overtaken by shoots from its rootstock.  Plant with the graft union a minimum of four inches underground, which can mean that you're planting the shrub six or eight inches deeper than it was when growing at the nursery.  Tree-peony retailers usually put a tie on a stem to indicate just how deep a given shrub needs to be planted.  Planting at such depth means that soil preparation needs to be deep as well—and that drainage needs to be superlative.  You're wisest to obey the same rule of thumb for tree peonies as for beech trees:  Never Plant On Level Ground.  Always plant on a slope that's great enough, in a bed that's particularly steep or raised overall, that even the deeply-buried rootstock is still higher than the surrounding grade.

 

Tree peonies are shrubs for cool and even cold climates.  Not least, the flowers last a bit longer where the cool weather of Spring drags on, it seems, well in June.  The shrubs are typically hardy to Zone 4.   

How to handle it: The Basics

Let the stems remain year to year, decade to decade.  If you get around to dead-heading, great.  If not, don't worry.  Prune only if a stem develops a dead tip; tree peonies do not need routine pruning, let alone formative pruning.

How to handle it: Another option—or two!

For several years after planting, evaluate new stems arising directly from underground.  If their foliage is the same as that of the tree peony itself, let them be.  If their foliage seems different, they might be shoots from the herbaceous-peony rootstock onto which tree peonies are grafted.  Snip off those root-stock shoots below-grade.  If you have the confidence, and your peony has been growing for several years and has, presumably, rooted-in securely, you can remove rootstock shoots with a confident sharp yank.  If, after several years, suckering still remains a challenge, dig up the shrub in Fall and wash off the soil, with the goal of determining where the roots from the graft are and, below those, the roots from the herbaceous rootstock.  Cut off the rootstock entirely, and replant at the same depth as before.

Downsides

The length of flowering is cruelly brief, and one heavy downpour can bring it to an even earlier close.  Although you can extend the tree peony season overall by planting other cultivars, the shrubs are truly scintillating only when in flower, and a collection of tree peonies in August will look like so much foliage.  By all means, grow any peony whose foliage is exceptional—Paeonia lutea var. ludlowii is always a good one to start with—as long as you realize that peonies play a zero-sum game:  The ones with the truly cool foliage, often huge and especially feathery or jagged, usually have small, modest, single flowers.  If you can, adjust your world view so that peonies with small, modest, single flowers seem more desirable.

Variants

Thanks to centuries of cultivation and hybridization—still ongoing—in their native China, as well as in Japan, Europe, and North America, there are hundreds of tree-peony cultivars extant as well as commercially available. Their range is so large that there are several nurseries who sell nothing but tree peonies.  I know of one that sells only Chinese-hybridized tree peonies.

 

Habits are all upright, with mature heights from three to six feet; most cultivars become as wide as tall, or nearly so.  While the pointedly-lobed leaves are never less than pleasing—and there are a few tree peonies, such as P. delavayi and its variants, P. lutea var. ludlowii and P. x franchetii, whose large and very segmented foliage is so exceptional it eclipses their flowers—tree peonies are normally grown for their flowers.  

As with the flowers of herbaceous peonies, the range is dizzying.  Forms can be semi-single (and usually with a prominent display of chrome-yellow stamens); "Japanese," with a central mound of small petals that are actually modified stamens; or, to varying degrees, double, with the stamens absent or obscured.  Flowers are large-to-huge; even "small" tree peony flowers can be five or six inches across.  

 

The coloring of most flowers falls in the white-pink-rose-magenta range; the petals of white flowers often have raspberry flares at the base.  Bicolors abound.  Yellow and coppery-pink flowers are available, but, as yet, no tree peony flower is truly orange.  "Red" flowers are actually rose, and should be confined to pink-friendly areas of your garden.  Deep burgundy cultivars mix with any color scheme; besides 'Black Panther', 'Hephaestos' is another popular "black peony" choice.

 

Although there's some spread in the flowering season across tree-peony cultivars, they all bloom in Spring, and any one bush isn't likely to be in flower for much more than a week.  The flowers are so extraordinary that this meteoric display is probably best:  It would be disrespectful if these staggering blossoms were so enduring that they came to be seen as commonplace.  Like the fleeting show of the other iconic Spring flower from the Orient, cherry trees, the brevity of the tree peony's performance is central to its magic.

Availability

On-line.

Propagation

Tree peony cultivars are normally propagated by grafting onto rootstock of an herbaceous peony.  (This is done as much for economy as effectiveness.  Herbaceous peonies are much cheaper than tree peonies, and a peony that's being used as rootstock is, in a sense, being sacrificed.)  Because tree peonies are planted so deeply, with the goal of encouraging rooting directly from the buried portions of their grafted stems, older multi-stemmed shrubs can be lifted and divided.  Tree peonies are always best dug, divided, or transplanted in the Fall.

Native habitat

Paeonia 'Black Panther' is a complex hybrid involving, ultimately, the species tree peony, Paeonia rockii, native to China, and the species herbaceous peony, P. lactiflora, also native to China.  Beginning in the 19th century, P. rockii was hybridized extensively, resulting in Paeonia suffruticosa cultivars.  Most hybrid tree peonies today have some degree or other of P. suffruticosa heritage.  In 1917, Arthur Saunders, a chemistry professor at Hamilton College, in Clinton, NY, began hybridizing P. suffruticosa further.   'Black Panther' is one of his lesser-known creations; many others remain popular classics.

 
 
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