Paeonia plants pair beautifully with traditional rock garden plants as you can see from these beautiful pictures taken at Blackthorn nursery.
In May 2019, I took a trip to Blackthorn Nursery to photograph the peonies in flower. The owner, Robin White, told me that some had already gone over, but said that many others that were still in full flower. As I walked round, I encountered many beautiful peonies and lots of other treasures along the way.
The first plant I saw when I arrived was this large Paeonia rockii (rock’s tree peony) in the sheltered area outside the door of the house, covered in the large white flowers with purple splotches in the centre.
The rock garden at the front of the house was a picture, with large patches of Phlox in full bloom and Aethionema grandiflorum having seeded gently around. The bright yellow is Linum ‘Gemmell’s Hybrid’, one of those old-fashioned easy rock garden plants that are becoming hard to find.
Down the side of the rock garden nearest the pond there was a large patch of a beautiful, large-flowered form of Anemone rupicola. Robin says this form is much easier than the one with blue backs to the petals.
Round on the patio to the south-west of the house, the troughs were a mass of flower, primarily Erinus alpinus and Aethionema grandiflorum but the red Phlox (‘Zigeunerblut’?) was very eye-catching.
If you like the look of these and would like to make your own, see our guide on making an alpine trough from hypertufa.
Also on the patio there was a pot planted with some tender summer colour, including a most attractive pastel-coloured daisy (perhaps a Jamaican primrose). Sue White has been working hard propagating and growing on tender plants for the local village fete in a few weeks’ time.
On a nearby raised bed, Prunus prostrata was in full flower and behind it a large and ancient plant of Paeonia mlokosewitschii.
Under the trees in the herbaceous border, Camassia leichtlinii was flowering before the perennials take over.
Beyond the hedge surrounding the patio area, there is an area of grass where Robin and Sue have been trying for a few years to create an alpine wildflower meadow effect. Amid the tiring wood anemones, this is now carpeted with cowslips and bugle (pink and blue), with a scattering of lilac Geranium asphodeloides and occasional Dodecatheon and red Anemone pavonina to provide a splash of colour.
Moving under the shade of the oak trees to the east of the meadow, the Geranium asphodeloides is thicker and we come to a large plant of Paeonia japonica (Japanese Peony) with its lovely white flowers.
Deeper in the shade under the oak trees is the old stock bed for shade-loving plants and at this time of year this is full of Trillium flowers. The first is a seedling, then T. grandiflorum f. roseum, a T. flexipes hybrid and a yellow form of T. erectum.
From here, I moved into the shade tunnel where the shade netting is enhanced by the oak trees for much of the day. Here, Robin has constructed raised borders containing ericaceous compost and manages to grow all sorts of plants that love cool, acidic, damp conditions, despite his underlying chalk. All these plants are growing in the open garden but with a carefully composed soil and quite heavy shade.
The immediate draw, and the reason I had gone down to the tunnel, was Paeonia obovata var. willmottiae (a form of Chinese woodland peony). I love all these peonies with single white flowers.
Many plants love being planted in this area of the garden. Some you would expect, Ramonda nathaliae and Pleione formosana for example. Others are a bit of a surprise. Tulbaghia leucantha from seed collected on the Drakensburg is thriving here and apparently hardy, as is Heteropolygonatum ogisui from Japan.
In the bed next to the peat blocks many other shade loving plants are thriving: Calanthe ‘Takema Hybrid’, Trillium grandiflorum f. roseum and in particular Trillium grandiflorum ‘Flore Pleno’.
I was particularly excited to see this beautiful little Meconopsis flowering there. I have never seen it in the flesh before and thought that if I ever did it would be in the Lakes or Scotland. It loves a cool, damp climate and seems very out of place on chalk in the hot dusty South of England.
Next to the Meconopsis, a large clump of Cypripedium was flowering happily. This was being grown under the name C. x. barbeyi, which seems to be an old name for C. x. ventricosum, so I wonder whether this good red, vigorous clone is the same as the plants being sold now as C. x. ventricosum ‘Barbie’.
Moving back outside, Phlox divaricata was blooming well at the back of the rock garden. I think the white form is Phlox divaricata ‘Dirigo Ice’.
Next to the Phlox, one of my favourite peonies was flowering – Paeonia x. smouthii. It is a hybrid between Paeonia lactiflora and Paeonia tenuifolia.
No more than a yard or two away, a massive clump of Paeonia officinalis subsp. microcarpa was covered in flowers.
At the bottom of the garden, I encountered a large cardoon with its wonderful leaves.
Here, there was another bush of Paeonia rockii and a hybrid between Paeonia rockii and Paeonia papaveracea (now subsumed within P. suffruticosa I think).
Working my way back up the garden, this sand bed was ablaze with colour. The vibrant red Phlox is either P. ‘Ochsenblut’ or P. Zigeunerblut’. I find the latter a slightly brighter colour but more short-lived in the garden. The more magenta Phlox is I think P. ‘Crackerjack’ and the Linum is L. ‘Gemmell’s hybrid’ again.
On both the gravel beds and the rock garden, more huge mats of Phlox cultivars were covered in flower, whilst the afternoon sun looked wonderful on the Pulsatilla seedheads.
On the back of the rock garden, Robin’s plant of Paeonia tenuifolia ‘Flore Pleno’ was in flower. It has been there for some time but doesn’t seem to increase much. It was a pleasure to see it at all as it has a reputation of being a difficult plant to keep.
The plants in the new crevice garden are starting to look established and flowering well. Here are Campanula aucheri, an unlabelled Oxalis and Daphne cneorum ‘Thorenc’, one of the best dwarf clones of this widely variable species.
In the gravel near the crevice bed, a very nice buttercup has become established with large solid yellow flowers. Robin isn’t sure which species it is.
I was very taken with this white Centaurea which I found in one of the herbaceous borders.
I was moving now to areas of the garden where plants are naturalised and allowed to mingle. May is the peak time for this lovely Geranium, which refuses to establish in my own garden, whether it is growing on its own in grass, or acting with Silene dioica (red campion) as a backdrop for Camassia leichtlinii.
In the grass on this bank, the deep blue Phyteuma nigrum has established well.
The woodland held a few last treats: a pink peony which I think is Paeonia mascula subsp. arietina and the lovely white form of it.
It is always a great pleasure to visit Robin and Sue. It is extraordinary what they can grow outside in the open garden in southern England with careful attention to positioning, soil preparation and care.
This time one of their plants went home with me temporarily. In one of the bulb frames was a large plant of Iris gatesii with half a dozen buds about to burst. I have never photographed it but Robin and Sue were due to be away the following week so Robin loaned me a smaller plant from the alpine house with two buds on it. Three days later the Iris obliged.
I am glad to say that I took it to the Wimborne Show the following Saturday as a non-competitive exhibit (where I photographed it again) and then returned it to Blackthorn on my way home, none the worse for its holiday.
I am going to end with a few pictures of my own garden, since some of you have commented that I never show it. The crevice garden to the front of the house is full of flower now, though most of it is Erinus alpinus and there is a very eye-catching dandelion sprouting from the middle of a Daphne, whence I can never extract it.
This Gladiolus has managed to escape and establish itself in the rock garden. It seems perfectly hardy and looked wonderful a month or so ago.
In the greenhouse, the Delosperma have been loving the recent warm weather. I particularly like the yellow and white flowers of Delosperma ‘Jewel of the Desert Peridot’.
Also in the greenhouse is this beautiful cultivar of G. carneus, which I grew from bulbils from the AGS seed exchange.
On the rock garden this dwarf white Aquilegia is flowering. I bought it from a garden centre about four years ago but have lost its name. Mike Morton may remember, since he had and grew seed from it at one point, earlier on when I still knew what it was called.
My favourite form of Pulsatilla vulgaris has been flowering. I grew it from seed from Robin and Sue White and, just like the parent plant, it has very neat and regular, rather small, outward looking flowers in abundance.
At the front of the rock garden, I have been very pleased to establish this lovely Arenaria I acquired last year – I don’t know where from. Rather than pure white, the flowers have just a hint of lemon.
This Deutzia grows over a wall near the backdoor. It has been there for about 25 years and seems to be happy, even with the pink rock rose scrambling through it.
Finally, my own peonies. This is a plant I grew from seed as Paeonia officinalis subsp. humilis, though that is now more correctly subsp. microcarpa.
I think this is P. peregrina.
This is my own plant of Paeonia x. smouthii, which was given to me by Robin White about five years ago.
A seedling from a pink form of Paeonia rockii flowered for the first time this year. I was delighted with the colour.
Finally, this is what I grow as P. wittmanniana. I am not a peony expert and I don’t have a book about them. Robin says that P. wittmanniana is supposed to have red stems and glossy foliage. This plant does have red stems but the foliage only looks glossy if you catch the light right. Whatever it is, it is a glorious thing.
Jon lives and gardens on the north side of the Hogsback on the border between Hampshire and Surrey, on a heavy clay soil. He is a long standing member of the AGS and has been treasurer of the local group in Woking for many years. He is especially interested in bulbs of all sorts, particularly those from South Africa, and is progressing slowly towards his Gold Medal at shows, at the rate of roughly one first per year.
However, he is best known within the AGS as an enthusiastic amateur photographer. For about 10 years he was responsible for organising the artistic and photographic section of the AGS shows around the country, and also for organising the show photography. During this period, he set up and ran the AGS Digital Image Library. He is still actively involved in plant photography, both at shows (he visits many shows each year to catalogue the extraordinary achievements of the exhibitors) and in gardens both public and private, and he makes regular outings to view and photograph wild flowers in the UK.
If you have any comments or queries for Jon, you can contact him direct at firstname.lastname@example.org