There is no doubt that peonies are the divas of May and June. But while they command all the attention, they’ll look even better with the right companions. One of the best plants to use with peonies is a North American Native that’s been hybridized to a dizzying array of colors and heights. Baptisia in its original form comes in white, blue or yellow. For hybrids, you can’t beat ‘Purple Smoke’ or Decadence ‘Blueberry Sundae’, because this kind of blue goes with every peony color, even the corals.
Baptisia is a plant that looks good even after it blooms, spreading very slowly, its soft stems arching prettily with grey-green leaves. I’ve yet to see one anywhere that has been damaged by insects or disease. Give its location choice a good deal of thought, though. Once this pea relative is in the ground, you’ll have to hire a backhoe to get it out.
Amaranth ‘Oeschberg’ puts out new leaves of a deep wine color, making the perfect companion for the pink peony flowers. Keeping it pinched back through June keeps it compact, and, because it promotes new growth, assures the leaves will remain colorful. Later in the summer, when the peonies are just a memory, this tall, dark and handsome plant will continue to give. The newest leaves can be harvested for salads, and if you let the flowers go to seed in late summer, the neighborhood birds will be sure to come by for a nutritious snack.
A bulb that can be planted in the fall along with peonies is Ornithogalum magnum, a white and spiky plant that unfurls at the same time as mid-season peonies. Because it is white, and reaches nearly three feet tall, it’s an ideal accent for peony flowers.
Good partnership choices seem easier in the shade. For one thing, there aren’t as many large-flowered plants vying for attention. In springtime, Helleborus flower buds give us new hope, and cautious peony sprouts are a cause for celebration. One of the plants that I love to see in early April is Brunnera ‘Hadspen Cream’. With its pale sage leaves bordered in cream, it’s a great mixer with any Hellebore, especially the white flowered varieties.
Around the same time as the Brunnera’s leaves appear, Pulmonaria also makes its debut. With its silver-speckled deep green leaves, it offers fresh cover for shade-loving companions. The purple and blue flowers of Brunnera and Pulmonaria bloom just a bit later than the Hellebores, creating a great sequence of color for shady gardens.
I consider Dicentra ‘Gold Heart’ one of the great classic bleeding hearts. It has those beautiful heart-shaped flowers that dangle from each stem, but it also lights up a shady spot with its bright chartreuse leaves. The leaves disappear when the heat comes to stay, but by then you have the Astilbe, whose lacy leaves provide a nice backdrop for the bleeding heart and shift into their floral display in early to mid-June.
PLANT SOURCES: Most of the plants listed can be found at your local garden centers. But if you’re looking for something different, specialty nurseries have a lot to offer.
B & D Lilies: growers in Port Townsend, WA has a huge selection of Lilium
Easy to Grow Bulbs: offers an extensive variety of hardy and tender bulbs
Pine Knot Farms: specializes in Hellebores, and is located in Clarksville, VA
Rosy Dawn Gardens: An extensive selection of cutting-grown Coleus in New Hudson, MI
Peony growers that offer a good selection of healthy plants in the fall include:
Choosing Plant Combinations ed. Better Homes and Gardens
Color Echoes: Harmonizing Color in the Garden by Pamela J. Harper