Peonies are as interesting and ornamental before bloom as they are when their flowers are open. Most of us are familiar with the unusual emergence of the Paeonia lactiflora cultivars which are so common in gardens. Most often lactifloras have glossy reddish stems and look somewhat like asparagus, tending to be quite similar from cultivar to cultivar. While this group of plants is interesting, they lack the intrigue and sometimes primitive beauty of the herbaceous hybrids and species plants.
A number of species have rather glaucus (chalky) stems and leaves early on. Some present their well developed flower buds as the plants emerge from their winter sleep below ground. Others present stems and undeveloped leaves of deep red and other unusual colors. The form of emergent stems can wide ranging and are also of great beauty/interest.
The herbaceous hybrids often share some of the same characteristics as their species ancestors. Typically the hybrids produce enormous looking shoots, expressing exciting previews to their later mature stems and leaves. A few will have interesting hairs or unusual immature foliage.
Whatever the cultivar group is, they all are appreciated as harbingers of the beauty to come. Emergent growth begins in very cold weather and this can be worrisome to gardeners. We often see the earliest species and herbaceous hybrids subjected to below freezing temperatures with snowfall in spring. Peonies at their early stages of growth are extremely tolerant of low temperatures and appear to have some ‘antifreeze’ in their tissues. Cold temperature often cause wilting, but stems almost always recover with warming temperatures.
Enjoy the images of peonies in their early stages and consider adding something unusual to your garden for early season interest, beauty and intrigue.