Peonies have long been used to decorate graves on Memorial Day. Years ago, mourners began a tradition of planting peony bushes on the final resting places of loved ones or decorating graves with peony bouquets. The large, fragrant blooms of the peony plant, a long-living perennial that flowers only once a year in late May, are still used to adorn graves on Decoration Day.

Appreciated as an ornamental and medicinal plant in China, peonies were cultivated there more than 2,500 years ago.

The traditional peony bush, as distinquished from the woody tree peony, is an herbaceous plant that dies to the ground in winter. Intersectional peonies, developed from crossing herbaceous peonies with tree peonies, are said to have better disease resistance than herbaceous peonies.

Thirty-two species of wild peonies are native from the Mediterranean region to western Asia, with two species endemic to western North America, say experts at the University of Michigan’s Nichols Arboretum. “Wild peony species are mostly herbaceous perennials, but some Chinese species are woody shrubs, mistakenly but permanently called ‘tree peonies’ in England.”

The most common peony bloom colors are white, pink, and red. Additional peony bloom colors include salmon, coral, cherry, and flamingo, various shades of pink, red and yellow, as well as bi-colors, and more.

Six peony flower types are recognized by the American Peony Society: Japanese, anemone, bomb, single, semi-double, and double.

The presence of ants on peony bushes often alarms peony growers who perceive the tiny insect as a destructive pest. Ants actually seek and consume nectar on peony plants and are harmless to peony plant leaves and buds. Ants may, in fact, protect peony plants by attacking insects that are destructive to peony plants.

Peony plants prefer well drained soil in a sunny garden spot away fron trees and shallow-root shrubs.

Peonies should be spaced three to four feet apart for proper air circulation, and should be sheltered from strong winds. Heavy or sandy soil should be enriched with compost or bonemeal worked into the soil of the planting hole.

The blooms of cut peonies can provide a week’s worth of enjoyment.

If your peony bushes are in bloom this Memorial Day weekend, cut a few blooms and make bouquets for decorating the graves of loved ones. These traditional flowers provide a cost-effective, fragrant, and beautiful expression of remembrance on decoration day.

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