Many of the plants I grew up loving in Indiana and, later, New England don't thrive in Northern California. They need hours of winter chill, and we don't get enough. I had assumed peonies were one of those; certainly the garden catalogs said so. Then I discovered the site of Charmarron Peony Gardens
, in the hills above San Jose. I found the site in midwinter, so I made a mental note to visit when the nursery reopened in spring.
Yesterday was a glorious day, sun shining, cirrus clouds, birds singing, but not too hot. We made the drive to Charmarron, which is in a part of the Bay Area I'd never visited -- south of the Bay, in the rolling foothills. It's beautiful. Because of the California climate, the hills are mostly bare with the occasional shrub or tree, so you can see the curved body of the landscape underneath. We wound in and out around the hills and up to the nursery, gasping at delight at the vistas along the way. We're in the tiny window between winter rains and summer heat, so the hills were green not only with live oaks but with grass.
Charmarron assumes you know what you want in a peony. There are lines on lines of peonies in the display garden, but they're all just marked by name; no indication of when they bloom, what color they are, what height they are. It's a display garden, and if you're there when a particular plant is in bloom you can find out for yourself. Otherwise, there's the woman who owns the nursery, who will answer questions if you can hunt her down and wait for her to stop answering other people's questions. In general, her answers will be "It depends". "Does this have a scent?" "Well, everybody's nose is different." "What height does this grow to?" "I've only had that one five years." Questions about bloom seasons -- even questions specified with "guesstimate" are answered with "It all depends on the weather." Which is true, obviously. However, if you ask her a question she doesn't think is dumb, she is a fountain of information and advice. I said "I'm Sunset zone 16" and she said "Oh, [town name]? I used to live there." I asked about chill, and she said no, chill was not the issue, full sun was the issue. Full sun I have.
In short, the nursery is for people who are serious. It was tree peony bloom season; the owner imports almost all her varieties from China and Japan. The Chinese varieties are marked both in characters and in transliteration. The names not further explained. I was particularly taken by Shima-nishiki
, which comes out in random blossoms of white or red or both. ("Don't get this if you won't be happy with an all-red plant. You never know.") As it happened, everybody else in the garden that day had at least one Asian-descended family member who could presumably interpret some of the names; we just bumbled around and said "Ooh! That's pretty!"
I eventually chose "High Noon
"; when I asked her to get a pot, she said "Oh! Haven't I told you about Bartzella
?" It turns out that there are now hybrids between tree and herbaceous peonies. Bartzella is freer-flowering, lower to the ground, and has a prettier shape. I came home with a Bartzella for the back garden. Then we made the long beautiful trip out of the hills toward home.
In three weeks -- "but I can't be sure" -- I'll be back to look at the herbaceous peonies. The hills will probably be brown by then. I need a "Festiva Maxima
" to remind me of my youth, and probably one or two more will hop into the back of the car.