Everyone seems to agree that this is the best year yet for the tree peonies in Rockefeller State Park Preserve in Pocantico Hills.
Mark Vergari, one of our best photographers, and I paid them a visit yesterday morning for an article for the paper and a TV segment on RNN cable. I took photos, too, but I haven’t even bothered to download them because his are so good. (All of these are by Mark at the park yesterday.)
It had rained early that morning and many of the blooms were still studded with raindrops.
This magnificent collection of more than 350 tree peonies comes into full flower every May and the blooms last for just 10 days or so on each plant.
Go quickly if you want to see these spectacularly show plants before they begin to fade and drop their papery petals. Youâ€™ll see blooms nearly as big as your head in impossible-to-describe shades of crimson, mauve, pale yellow, fire-engine red, purple, pink and just plain white. Many are deliciously fragrant.
â€œLook at how gorgeous they are â€” this year has just been unbelievable,â€ says Alix Schnee, manager of the 1,233-acre park.
The peonies, which are clustered around the low buildings near the entrance to the park, were a gift to the American people from the small Japanese town of Yatsuko-Cho as a gesture of healing and peace after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Another group of several hundred 5-year-old plants was to go to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
Unfortunately, all of the plants arrived by boat in Long Beach, Calif., in the fall of 2002 in the middle of a longshoremanâ€™s strike. By the time the container with 1,050 tree peonies (worth $160,000) arrived in New York, not a single plant in the sawdust packing had survived the baking California sun. Everyone involved was heartbroken.
Undeterred, growers in Yatsuko-Cho put together a second shipment of 3-year-old peonies for Pocantico Hills and Brooklyn and this time sent them by air to New York. They arrived in early December that same year, with just barely enough time to get them into the ground before it froze for the winter.
To match the generous gift of the Japanese, the Friends of the Rockefeller State Park Preserve raised $96,000 to build an appropriate garden and stone courtyard for the peonies.
Now the 3- to 4-foot-tall plants have the great good fortune to be cared for by a hard-working team of more than 40 volunteers, led by Keith Austin, the former mayor of Briarcliff Manor.
â€œYou couldnâ€™t have better guardians for your flowers than Keith and his crew of volunteers,â€ Schnee says. â€œState parks and sites donâ€™t have a lot of resources and weâ€™re absolutely dependent on volunteer support â€” and love.â€
Austin, now retired, first fell in love with the tree peony (Paeonia suffruticosa) while working for IBM Corp. in Japan, where itâ€™s considered the king of all flowers.
â€œIn that part of Japan everybody cultivates them,â€ he says. Yatsuko-Cho in particular is renowned for its rare tree peonies.
That’s Alix on the left, with Keith:
Once established after two to three years, tree peonies are not particularly fussy, Austin says.
â€œTheir care is virtually no different than herbaceous peonies, which we all have in our gardens.â€
Tree peonies are more like a woody shrub than the herbaceous ones (Paeonia lactiflora), which die back to the ground in winter. The leaves of tree peonies are thinner, softer and less lustrous.
â€œThe most important thing with peonies is good sanitation,â€ Austin says. â€œThat and good drainage â€” these things donâ€™t like a lot of water.â€
Every leaf is raked away from the garden in fall to keep out overwintering diseases and funguses and the plants are deadheaded nearly every day while in bloom.
Many of the tree peonies are still covered with buds.
The growers from Yatsuko-Cho have kept a close watch on the peonies.
â€œThey sent people over for three years running to make sure we were caring for them correctly,â€ Schnee says. â€œI had all sorts of experts telling us what to do, but we followed exactly what the Japanese told us to do â€” we figured they knew what they were doing. What an extraordinary gift, what an extraordinary gift.â€
What a gift, indeed. Come see for yourself in the next few days.
If you go
The Rockefeller State Park
Preserve is open year-round from sunrise to sunset. The entrance is on Route 117 about
1 mile east of
Route 9. There is a $6 parking fee.
Call 914-631-1470 or visit nysparks.state.ny.
us/parks/info.asp?parkID=60 or www.friendsrock.org