Book Review - ‘Peonies’ by Claire Austin
Updated: Aug 24
I am delighted to be asked to offer a review on this book on the Genus Paeonia; perhaps better known to most as Peonies. Claire Austin has huge and varied experience growing these plants and her ambition in this title to produce a definitive source book of the species and especially varieties available is no small undertaking. I believe that it has been handled adeptly here and this is a valuable resource for anyone interested in these charming plants. Claire’s enduring knowledge and real-world experience of growing Peonies in a number of gardens provides the necessary verisimilitude to ensure that we are well-informed on the species and varieties and where an issue, their potential failings as good garden plants.
I disagree with Claire’s initial assumption that there are only three types of garden writers; botanists, creative writers (broadly garden designers) and finally those who speak with the experience of growing. I strongly believe that this categorisation is unhelpful and the majority of garden writers embody an amalgam of two or more of these qualities - and no bad thing too! Claire’s point, I believe, is to highlight the value of experience in growing and studying a genus, to be able to critically evaluate it and report on the years of experience of working with a plant. I applaud this, but the necessity of description to classify each species and variety requires some botanical consideration and in discussing garden-worthiness, the author must also adopt a designer’s eye (at least in part).
Regardless of my or Claire’s position on types of garden writer out there, we both agree on the value of experience and that is apparent on every page of this book. Not in a manner that makes the text an overwhelming botanical evaluation, but in an entirely readable, helpful and encouraging way, that will aid those selecting varieties for their garden as much as it will a designer selecting for multiple projects.
To some detail on the book itself;
Binding - Hardback.
Format - Portrait, near A4 sized.
Pages - 176 including index. Satin with full colour images throughout.
Author - Claire Austin
Publisher - white Hopton Publications
Publication Date - 2021
Detail - Approximately 63 species and subspecies listed and many detailed. Well over 200 cultivars, with the majority described and with images.
ISBN - 978-0-9931647-3-6
The book is broadly separated into two sections; cultural and descriptive. The cultural chapters are formed of an Introduction, followed by A Rough Guide to the genus looking at the types of plant and the botanical groupings that they are divided into. This is a useful starting point for anyone looking to understand the difference between woody and herbaceous species and the origins of some species. It introduces us to the groups of Herbaceous, Intersectional and Tree Peonies, which will later form much of the described types. We are then taken through a guide to flower shapes and forms, stems and habits, then provided with a very helpful list of scented varieties and those suitable for cuttings and floristry.
Our next chapter is to provide a comprehensive guide to Growing Peonies. Something, which it does very well without being in any way overly complex in approach. The guidance is clear and insightful and I was particularly happy to see a few sentences dedicated to thinking about how to buy peonies. General maintenance and propagation are covered before an equally valuable brief guide to pest and disease issues as well as other reasons for lower success.
For most readers the next chapter entitled ‘Peonies in the Garden’, will be of the greatest use and clear guides along with excellent photography (largely from the author) makes this section of great value to aid selection. I especially recommend the lists of varieties based on flower season, colours and the selections best grown in windy gardens. As a fan of understanding flower colour, I would have liked to have seen a colour chart of varieties, akin to those produced by Claire’s father’s business David Austin Roses in some of their designer guides. Not to worry though, as it doesn’t detract from the content and encourages the reader to look up the varieties in the descriptive part of the text.
The next two chapters look at a history of peonies in cultivation, with the first chapter focussing on a world view from Greek mythology, through Roman herbalism, to the Middle Ages and the ornamental revolution of the 1600’s through to the 1800’s where plant breeding for beauty became de rigueur. As we move into more modern times, we are given an insight into the contribution of French plant breeders and into the work of several prominent early British plant breeders and famous nurseries, which is endlessly fascinating and well documented in a highly readable way. The second of the historical chapters is a hugely personal one, detailing Claire’s introduction to the genus through her father’s work building a collection at considerable expense, effort and time. This leads on to Claire embracing the management of this collection and developing experience, love for and a great deal of knowledge through hands on application with the plants. Claire’s connection with luminaries like the late great Graham Thomas, who was a friend of her father and through extensive travel and engagement with international breeders, perhaps less commonly known in the UK, document her determination to fully understand the plants and people who’s stories are told in these plant varieties. It also details the practical realities of managing a large collection of any plant: maintaining documentation, plant labels, keeping plants pest and disease free, propagating and even keeping large areas weed free, are an interesting and valuable insight to anyone who might be considering a collection. A final thought in this chapter, on first, the acknowledgment that most varieties that we grow were bred before 1960 and secondly that plant breeding is now introducing new cultivars, some of which are good and others less so is a useful nod to the collector on the future of the genus.
We are then taken, by means of an introduction to each type and then an alphabetically organised description of varieties, through chapters on Lactiflora Peonies, which form the majority of plants described (some 58 pages). We then get just a handful of pages on Garden-worthy Species, bey necessity of the fact that there are only a very few good garden species available to Temperate climate gardeners. Next are some 31 pages describing Intersectional Peonies, again beginning with a description of what constitutes an Intersectional variety. The final 15 pages cover what are known to be Tree Peonies, perhaps better described, as the author points out, as woody or shrubby peonies as they never grow into a trees, but will make impressive shrubs with a network of woody stems that persist through the winter.
In each descriptive chapter, individual varieties and species are described briefly, pictured in flower and useful information, which varies depending on their classification to include details like Breeder, Flower Type and season, Scent (where applicable), a requirement for staking (very important information with this genus) and even a translation from Chinese/Japanese for Tree Peony names. All include a description of height, which is essential for planning a design. Information is concise, but entirely relevant and often includes details on how free-flowering a variety is as well as the nature of the variety’s growth pattern, stem colours and any specific environmental requirements like additional soil moisture that can only be provided by someone with detailed experience of growing that plant. Endlessly useful, these descriptions are a few sentences each, but are the most concentrated form of years of work and study of each and every variety described. Claire is also clear when she has little or limited experience of a particular variety, which is refreshing to see and the honest and frank approach to her writing is what one finds in the work of any truly knowledgeable and experienced plantsperson writing about their work. It is aligned to the reasons that we enjoy reading the works of Beth Chatto, Christopher Lloyd, Roy Lancaster and other eminent plantspeople.
So to evaluate then; this book is well written, and detailed throughout without become overly complicated. The detail is all relevant to a gardener or garden designer, but the work should also be considered a valuable repository of knowledge on the genus and a comprehensive review of cultivars. There are other peony books out there and they are all pretty good. This one, I feel, is a cut above the rest that I have seen and should be considered a modern definitive text on the genus, full of excellent photography and insightful guidance on how to grow peonies.
iPlantsman 25th April 2021
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Peonies by Claire Austin (as reviewed above)
Buy Peony Plants via Thompson and Morgan on Amazon
Essential purchase for successful Peony Growing are these handy and discrete plant stakes.
A couple of others books on Peonies that may be of interest.
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