It’s peony season and we have a new book on peonies to savour. Written and photographed by renowned peony expert Claire Austin - her nursery lists more peony varieties than I could count – she doesn’t just describe her choice from the thousands of varieties she’s seen and grown over the years. No, she adds the fruits of her insight derived from decades of experience. (Well – enough decades to soak up the experience but not so many decades that… I’ll stop digging.)
The book is, basically, Claire’s choice of peonies, described and illustrated. We know we can trust her choice, and there’s no tricky botanical language in the text to trip us up. In fact I think that she sat on a stool in front of each variety and simply described what she saw. The best way.
But there’s more. So, apart from giving us the description of each plant we learn, for example:
‘Bunker Hill’ “Unlike many red lactiflora blooms, the petals don’t deteriorate quickly when the flower is cut.”
‘Emma Klehm’ “A useful plant for those who want a very late-flowering variety.”
‘Little Medicine Man” has flowers that are small “but produced in great numbers on stiff red stems”.
‘Marie Lemoine’ “Sadly, wet weather can spoil the flowers.”
‘Shirley Temple’ “blooms freely in a partly shaded spot”.’
She also notes, for each variety, whether or not it needs staking and the strength of its scent and lists more than two dozen varieties that she especially recommends for cutting.
Before we come to the descriptions and illustrations that make up most of the book, we have Claire’s advice on growing peonies, a summary of their development over the centuries, and a fascinating account of her own history with these everlastingly tempting perennials.
And I’m pleased to say that she slays the myth about moving peonies: “There is a long-held but totally unfounded gardening belief that peonies cannot be moved.” Got that? “unfounded”.
“Peonies have few ailments,” Claire continues. True enough. But a cut flower growing friend asked me just a couple of days ago why her white peonies were spoiling the purity of their colour with faint red flashes. I had no idea, so I hoped Claire’s book would help. But no luck.
So I’m very happy to have this book on my shelf, to enlighten me – and to steal from – whenever I need. Just one thing: the design is, well, a little bit dull. Modern plant books, including the excellent RHS Horticultural Monograph series and Discovering Dahlias that I reviewed here recently, inspire interest partly because of the elegance of their design. I see no designer is credited on this book. Claire should think about hiring a specialist designer next time.
- An unimpeachable choice of the best varieties
- Every variety illustrated
- Descriptions based on personal experience
- Thoughtful insight into each variety’s qualities
- Readable and without reliance on botanical language
- Design could be more stylish
“Dependable peony advice from our leading expert.”
Peonies by Claire Austin is published by White Hopton Publications at £25. Order a copy from Claire Austin’s Hardy Plants.