Miraculous Itoh peonies are glorious | gardening advice

In the late 1940s, amid the rubble of the Second World War, Dr Toichi Itoh was quietly working away to make the world a more beautiful place. With a lifelong fascination for one of the most iconic flowers of his native Japan, he had the fantasy to cross herbaceous peonies with tree peonies, to create incredible hybrids the likes of which he had never been seen before. A trained botanist, he knew that if he could pull this off, a phenomenon called hybrid vigour would probably mean this elusive union would result in enormous flowers that were not only larger, but longer-lasting and available in totally novel color combinations.

There was just one small problem with his ambition: it was thought totally impossible. Not only do the flowers of the two peonies tend to bloom weeks apart, even if you could get them to coincide, genetic incompatibilities between the two meant the crosses would never take, hence why centuries of dedicated breeding had never even come close.

But Dr Itoh was nothing if not tenacious, for after well over 20,000 attempts to make this cross by hand, in 1948 one miraculous seed pod ripened, creating a handful of healthy baby plants that defied what the botanical world thought possible. In a cruel twist of fate, however, he didn’t live long enough to see the first flowers of these slow-growing plants, but his tireless love of peonies has given later generations some of the most wonderful hybrids out there in the form of the ‘Itoh’ peonies that bear his name.

These peonies combine the best of both worlds – often the fragrance of the herbaceous types, for example, alongside the long-lastingness of the tree forms. With their sturdy, compact architecture meaning they won’t need staking to avoid collapsing under the weight of their giant blooms, they are even far more resistant to peony blight and slug attack. As Dr Itoh predicted, hybrid vigour does indeed mean they produce the largest of all peony flowers. And, being sterile, their lack of pollination means they last around twice as long; Some varieties will even throw up a second flush of flowers later in the year.

‘Bartzella’: massive lemon-yellow double flowers that look like cake decorations. Photograph: Getty Images

I love ‘Canary Brilliants’ for its cocktail of peachy-pink and apricot-orange shades and powerful scent on metre-high plants. For fans of single-block colors, ‘Bartzella’ has massive, lemon yellow, double flowers, that look like cake decorations and have the most uplifting scent. ‘Pastel Splendor’ looks like an oriental poppy, with dusky pink, single flowers with the darkest of red patterns at their center. It’s a variety that combines perfectly with ‘All that Jazz’, which is (to me) a double version of the former, with painted burgundy bases to their delicate pink petals.

Now here comes the only catch: the enormous difficulty in producing these hybrids, a process that can even today take around 15 years, does mean they are much more expensive to buy, but what you are paying for is the dedication of geniuses like Dr Itoh , the fruit of whose passion you can enjoy for a lifetime.

Follow James on Twitter @Botanygeek

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