AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn University horticulture professor Ken Tilt is leading a study that should soon add a rainbow of colors to Alabama’s springtime landscape.
It’s the AU Peony Project—a quest for peony cultivars that can take the heat and humidity of the South.
While peonies, with their large, fragrant flowers and lustrous dark-green foliage, long have taken center stage in many a northern garden, Alabama’s mild winters and extreme summers have for the most part stymied generations of gardeners’ attempts to grow them here. But through the peony project, a number of Asian cultivars are showing tremendous potential for this region.
Seeds for the peony project were sown four years ago, when Tilt and fellow AU horticulture professor and Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station scientist Jeff Sibley, on a plant expedition to China in search of heat-tolerant ornamental plants for Southern landscapes, spotted large plantings of peonies in the botanical gardens of Wuhan, China.
“We were surprised to see them there, because Wuhan’s climate is comparable to that of Alabama, where, except for a few fringe varieties, it’s a given that the cultivars traditionally available in the U.S. won’t perform,” Tilt said.
In 2003, on a return trip to Wuhan, Tilt and Sibley collected several of the Chinese cultivars to bring home and test in the Southeast’s notoriously hot, humid climate.
Today, they are evaluating close to 50 different garden peonies at locations from Brewton to Anniston and on up to Charleston, S.C., looking for Chinese cultivars that are heat-tolerant and that require minimal chill hours, or hours with temperatures between 32 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit, each winter for flower buds to develop properly.
The trial plantings in the AU Peony Project include the cultivars Tilt and Sibley brought back from Wuhan and a few supplied by nurseries across the country. The lion’s share of the cultivars, however, came from the purchase of a Georgia importer’s substantial private collection of Chinese and Japanese garden peonies.
That purchase was possible thanks to a substantial donation Birmingham gardening enthusiasts Bill and Faye Ireland made to the AU Peony Project. In addition to the mass peony acquisition, the Ireland donation is supporting research into both the genetics of more heat-tolerant cultivars and tissue-culture propagation, in which hundreds of disease-free clones can be produced from a small piece of a desirable cultivar. The graduate student conducting most of that research hails from Shanghai and also is serving as the liaison between Wuhan and Auburn to identify additional peony cultivars with potential to grow in nurseries and landscapes in the South.
Even as the numerous cultivars are being evaluated, other AU researchers involved in the peony project are working to identify the ideal growing conditions, including soil type and orientation in the landscape, for successfully establishing peonies in Southern gardens.
Garden peonies are long-lived perennials that grow about three feet in height and bloom in mid- to late spring, featuring showy, six-inch blossoms in white, pink, red, maroon, yellow and bicolor. Tilt said the peony project should result in heat-tolerant peonies being available commercially in Alabama within three years. Besides enhancing the state’s landscape, the AU Peony Project carries significant profit potential for nurseries throughout the state and region, Tilt said.
To view the plants under evaluation in the AU Peony Project, go to www.ag.auburn.edu/landscape/ and follow the link.
Office of Ag Communications & Marketing
Auburn University College of Agriculture
Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station
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Auburn, AL 36849
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Contact Jamie Creamer, 334-844-2783 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Contact Ken Tilt, 334-844-5484 or email@example.com
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