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American Impressionism Exhibit (2016) - Featured Plants: Peonies

Impressionism: American Gardens on Canvas Exhibition (2016); photo by Marlon Co
Impressionism: American Gardens on Canvas Exhibition (2016); photo by Marlon Co

What Is an American Impressionist Garden?

It is a garden bursting with old-fashioned flowers - the same cheerful and colorful bulbs, annuals, biennials and perennials featured in the gardens in vogue at the turn of the 20th century.  It is a warm and welcoming garden, meant to be lived in and tinkered with rather than simply observed. It is the bright, lushly planted, garden style that inspired American Impressionists. To design the American Impressionist Garden for our 2016 Exhibition, NYBG began with a close examination of the paintings Guest Curator Linda S. Ferber considered for inclusion in the exhibition. We were ultimately drawn to the most often repeated subject of the assembled works - informal, abundant, flower gardens vibrant with color. *

photo of border featuring delphinium and hollyhock in American Impressionist Exhibit
Border featuring delphinium and hollyhock; photo by Ivo Vermeulen

A Selection of Plants Featured in the NYBG American Impressionist Garden

So what plants were popular during the turn of the 20th century, in private residences and art colonies on Long Island and in New England? The NYBG Horticulture Staff, under the direction of Francisca Coelho, created an exhibition full of the plants common to these gardens. It was brimming with hollyhock, delphinium, lilies, clematis, foxglove, sunflowers, poppies and peonies to name only a few. We detail below and on the following pages some of the most loved plants in the American Impressionist show that you may wish to try in your own garden. 

Paeonia (peony)

In addition to the peonies featured in our 2016 American Impressionism exhibit, the beautiful, Matelich Anniversary Peony Collection at NYBG is quite impressive in bloom in mid-May to early June. Herbaceous Paeonia is a long-lived, treasured plant and respected inhabitant of early American gardens. They are chiefly native to Asia, and less abundantly represented in the natural floras of North America and Europe. The name Paeonia, is believed to have been given in honor of Paeon, a physician reputed to have first used the plants medically. Garden varieties of herbaceous peonies are mostly derivatives of P. lactiflora, a native of China and Siberia with thick, fleshy roots and clusters of erect stems 1 ½ to 3 feet tall. For the home garden, herbaceous peonies are easy once established.

Paeonia lactiflora 'Fantastic' growing at NYBG; photo by Ivo Vermeulen
Paeonia lactiflora 'Fantastic'; photo by Ivo Vermeulen

When planting your herbaceous peony, choose a location with at least six hours of sun, to ensure vigorous blooms. Plant in fall, not spring, in an area with very good drainage; standing water will suffocate the roots and is the leading cause of plant failure. Raised beds or planting on a slope are ideal. In a few years, your peony will become a large, green, perennial bush, 36 inches high, so allow a space of about 3 feet - 4 feet between it and other permanent plantings.

Keep the roots shaded and slightly moist until planting. Herbaceous peonies prefer a humus-rich, sandy loam with a pH of 6.5-7.0. Finished compost and lime are two amendments that are always useful to most soils. A very heavy clay soil will also require the addition of sand for drainage. The site you prepare should have good soil at least 18 inches deep and 2 feet in diameter. Herbaceous peonies have fleshy tuberous roots with buds or “eyes” that are planted buds up, no more than 2 inches below ground level. 

Mound the soil and spread out the roots. Mix 2 ounces of fish & seaweed fertilizer with 2 gallons of water and "mud in" the plant to prevent any air pockets at the roots. Deep planting impedes flowering, so be careful to check that the plant does not sink as you water it in. After the ground freezes, mulch well with 6 inches of leaves or other material for winter protection. In most climates, this heavy mulching is only necessary the first season to prevent heaving (frost pushing the plant up out of the soil).

In the Spring, remove the mulch slowly when danger of frost is past. Fertilize with 1 oz. fish and seaweed emulsion to 1 gallon of water every 2 - 3 weeks for maximum growth. It is best to “deadhead” any spent flowers. Water only when the soil feels dry 6 inches below the surface. Water at the base of plant, avoiding sprinkling water on the leaves. In areas of wet, very cool springs, it is best to treat the emerging buds with a biodegradable copper solution. This simple preventative treatment will prevent fungus and black spotting on the leaves.

To support large clumps of peonies, carefully lay a flat piece of 2-inch chicken wire, cut to a size of about 2 feet x 2 feet, over the new red shoots in spring. This has to be done early in the season, as soon as the shoots emerge from the ground. Adjust chicken wire to allow one shoot to go into one cell of the wire. As the shoots grow taller, the chicken wire will lift up and be a part of the growing plant, settling under the foliage. Fold down the edges of the wire under foliage so it is not visible. This will support the stems and keep the plant more upright.

About the time of the first frost, the leaves and stems will blacken. Cut down the stems and leaves to a few inches above the ground. Remove debris from the garden to prevent any overwintering of fungus. Plants will emerge from underground in the spring, growing into a larger clump each year. After 5 or more years, you can dig and divide your peony in the fall, to divide and create more plants. 

Peonies featured in the NYBG American Impressionist Exhibit

Botanical Name


Common Name

'Many Happy Returns'
herbaceous peony
'Peach Blossom Falling in Snow'
'Chou Dynasty Yellow'
'Color of Ice'
'Eden's Perfume'
'Glory Be'
'Pink Kisses'
Paeonia lactiflora
'Dairy Anne'
herbaceous peony
'Riches and Honor'

*From the catalogue to Impressionism: American Gardens on Canvas; "An American Impressionist Garden" by Todd Forest

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