Itoh peonyColumn: Josh Reilly Columns Gardening 

New Breeds in the Garden

By Josh Reilly

Gardeners are always looking for something new. Plant breeders want to stand out from the competition and step away from the past. New hybrids, cultivars, selections, and subspecies are arriving on the market in waves looking for acceptance and new homes. Many new arrivals sport blossoms with new colors and cute names, but are otherwise indistinguishable from last year’s offerings. I have long since given up, for instance, trying to keep track of new Salvia introductions. I have no idea how the nurseries do it.

Of course, there are very good reasons for this. More gardeners are going to be working with less space in the future. They’ll need plants that are smaller, but otherwise similar to the beauties they see at the local garden center, at botanical gardens, and in high end coffee table garden books (known in the trade as “garden eye candy”). Invariably these books feature huge gardens, wealthy owners, and famous designers. The rest of us may have only a courtyard, a deck, or a balcony on which to host our collection. Some of us garden in difficult locations, under shade most of the day, in a low spot, where cold damp air gathers all Winter and frost lingers well past early morning. Still others have raging hot afternoon sun all Summer, crisping plants that are otherwise well adapted to their location and USDA hardiness zone. Still others contend with hungry deer and gophers (more on this in a future column). I have lucked out when it comes to space. I have lots. As for all the rest of these constraints, my site is a veritable test case, and sometimes, I fear, a horticultural kill zone. So any time the plant breeders develop something that helps gardeners overcome their site’s limitations, I cannot contain my joy and gratitude. Herewith, two splendid examples of breeding breakthroughs well worth your attention.

Itoh Peony

Monrovia Nurseries has released a line of Itoh peonies that I believe will work in any SLV, or maybe even Santa Cruz, garden. We had lots of peonies when we lived in Indiana (it’s the state flower) and we really missed them when we moved here. Our attempts to grow them were unsuccessful largely because common herbaceous peonies require a cold snap during Winter in order to flower and otherwise thrive for the rest of the year. Itoh peonies, a cross between tree peonies and common herbaceous peonies developed by a tenacious Japanese botanist named Dr. Toichi Itoh, require much less cold exposure. Common peony flower shoots often flop over under rain or the weight of the impressively large blossoms, and require elaborate staking.  Unlike their common cousins, Itoh peonies do not flop over as much. Smaller in size than tree peonies, they will share space cordially with their neighbors. I cannot, however, recommend putting them in pots. They get up to three feet wide and have deep, wide roots. 

Semponium Sienna | Photo courtesy of

Another cause for celebration is the new succulent called “Semponium Sienna,” a cross between two very different succulent genera, Sempervivum and Aeonium. No mean feat, this success earned Surreal Succulents a Bronze Medal in the UK at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2021 (the Oscars of the plant world). I used to grow Sempervivum in Indiana. It slept contentedly under snow from November to April, then sprang to life pushing up a forest of flower shoots by late May or June. By contrast, Aeonium cannot tolerate frost, let alone snow.  Semponium overwinters like Sempervivum, but looks like a big, blowsy Aeonium in Summer. I grow Aeoniums, but I bring them indoors, under grow lights all Winter. Not Semponium, which is oblivious to the cold. I can’t wait for big spires of yellow Aeonium-like blossoms leaning heavily in the early Summer sun.

Josh Reilly, aka Uncle Skip, writes about seasonal gardening from his home in beautiful Ben Lomond, California.

Photos by Josh Reilly

Featured photo: Itoh peonies thriving in the Ben Lomond garden


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