It’s a short show — 7 to 10 days max — but oh what a theatrical performance the magnificent tree peonies in the Rockefeller State Park Preserve put on for visitors in May.
“My guess is no blooming in any volume until the weekend of May 11,” says Keith Austin, former mayor of Briarcliff Manor and head of the hard-working team of volunteers who maintain the plants at the Mount Pleasant park.
The blooms are huge and filled with heady, spicy aromas. The colors are just delicious – Chinese red, hot pink, pale yellow, lipstick-rich crimson, mauve, pure white and lavender.
The 425 tree peonies are clustered around the low buildings near the entrance to the 1,233-acre park. They were a gift to the American people from the small Japanese town of Yatsuko-Cho as a gesture of healing and peace after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Unfortunately, all of the original plants arrived by boat in Long Beach, Calif., in the fall of 2002 amid a longshoreman’s strike. By the time the container with 1,050 tree peonies (worth $160,000) arrived in New York, every single plant in the sawdust packing was dead.
Undeterred, growers in Yatsuko-Cho put together a second shipment of 3-year-old peonies and this time sent them by air to New York. They arrived in early December that same year, with just enough time to get them into the ground before it froze hard for the winter.
To match the generous gift of the Japanese, the Friends of the Rockefeller State Park Preserve raised $96,000 to build a welcoming garden and stone courtyard for the peonies.
Once established after a couple of years, tree peonies are not particularly fussy, Austin says. And they certainly don’t mind the dry spring we’ve had so far.
“These are seriously drought tolerant plants,” he says, noting that these peonies in the park have only been watered once in 12 years, and that was during a seven-week dry spell. “I just keep them mulched.”
Last month, the volunteers spread out 10 cubic yards of mulch in the peony garden. They also maintain the nearby fern garden that was created by local fern expert John Mickel and his wife, Carol.
Tree peonies (Paeonia suffruticosa) 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.
For home gardeners, the most important thing with peonies is good sanitation, Austin says. Every leaf is raked away from the Rockefeller State Park garden in fall to keep out overwintering diseases and funguses, and the plants are deadheaded nearly every day while in bloom. And good drainage for the plants is key because they don’t like a lot of water.
Meanwhile, get over to Rockefeller State Park to see the show while it lasts. One big rainstorm can scatter the pretty petals in a million directions.
What: Fifth Annual Spring Peony Celebration, a fund-raising buffet and cocktail reception sponsored by the Friends of the Rockefeller State Park Preserve
When: 6 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, May 9
Where: Gateway of the Rockefeller State Park Preserve, 125 Phelps Way — Route 117 (1 mile east of Route 9), Mount Pleasant
Featuring: Exhibit and sale of paintings by Richard Hambleton; flower show and sale presented by local garden clubs; viewing of the 425 peony trees in the courtyard; festive dress encouraged.
Tickets: Starting at $125; RSVP by May 6
Information: www.friendsrock.org; for more about the park, visit http://nysparks.com/parks/59/details.aspx or call 914-631-1470. The state park is open year-round, sunrise to sunset. Parking is $6 (free for festivalgoers).