Sarah Bernhardt peony: A soft pink french heirloom double peony cultivar

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Sarah Bernhardt Peonies are beautiful flowers that can fit well in any garden. While they aren’t especially high-maintenance flowers, there are several things that you can do to help them grow.

Sarah Bernhardt Peonies are large, fragrant, double-bloom peonies with soft pink petals. These low-maintenance herbaceous perennial plants bloom best when grown in full sun and soil that gives the roots access to plenty of moisture. The Sarah Bernhardt Peony is a cultivar of Paeonia lactiflora bred in France by Victor Lemoine in the late 1800’s.

Read on to learn all about the Sarah Bernhardt Peony!

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Sarah Bernhardt peonies: The basics

The Sarah Bernhardt Peony is named after a famous French actress of the same name. Sarah Bernhardt was a stage actress who acted in the plays of both Alexander Dumas and Victor Hugo, and she was the first famous actresses to act in film.

The breeder of this particular cultivar, one Monsieur Victor Lemoine, was a contemporary of Bernhardt’s in France, which is likely why he chose to use her name. Undoubtedly, these flowers share the same spirit of showmanship. Mr. Lemoine likely introduced the Sarah Bernhardt Peony in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s. This peony was awarded the RHS Award of Garden Merit in 1993.

Here are some nurseries that stock Sarah Bernhardt Peony plants (typically shipped in spring/fall):

The Sarah Bernhardt Peony remains one of the most popular peonies to grow in the garden, even well over a hundred years after its introduction. This type is an excellent example of a “double” peony – a type bred to have bodacious multiple layers of petals. Other popular double peonies include the Karl Rosenfield Peony, the Festiva Maxima Peony, and the Shirley Temple Peony.

Buying sarah bernhardt peony plants - bare root plants at big box store

What type of peony is the Sarah Bernhardt peony classified as?

Sarah Bernhardt Peony plants (Paeonia lactiflora ‘Sarah Bernhardt’) are herbaceous perennial peony plants with Full Double-type peony flowers that bloom late-season (typically early summer).

Peonies come in six main types of flower forms: Single, Anemone, Japanese, Semi-Double, Bombe, and Full Double. Full Double peonies like Sarah Bernhardt’s are known for their voluminous layers of petals. In this flower type, all stamens and carpels are transformed into petals. Double peonies look like a flower inside a flower (hence the term “double”). Sometimes pollen-bearing stamens (often yellow) appear in a circle around the outside of the inner flower layer.

There are three main types of peony plants: tree, herbaceous, and intersectional. Sarah Bernhardt peonies are among the herbaceous category of peony plants. These plants sprout anew from their roots each spring, and will typically grow to be about 3 feet tall by the middle of spring. Then, they will bloom and go on to display beautiful foliage throughout summer and even into early fall. They usually die back to their roots after the first hard frost comes.

Sarah bernhardt - french actress
Sarah bernhardt – french actress
Sarah bernhardt peony

How to grow Sarah Bernhardt peony plants?

Peonies are extremely simple flowers to grow as long as you plant them right the first time. Here is the way to plant your Sarah Bernhardt that will keep it happy and healthy for years:

Sizes and Distances

The Sarah Bernhardt is 34-36″ tall and 24-36″ wide. Plant them far away from trees and shrubs, which will compete with them for nutrients and probably win. Plant the peonies 3-4 feet apart from each other so that they have enough living space.

Seasons

Sarah Bernhardt likes to bloom from mid-spring to early summer, and the best time to plant them is in early winter or late fall. Fall is the best time to move full-grown peonies to a new home. Be sure that the peonies have at least six weeks to settle before the first snowfall of the year.

Where Do Peonies Grow?

Peonies are hardy from zones 2-8 and are easiest to grow in zones 4-7.

In your garden, you’ll usually want to plant them somewhere they can get sunlight all day. However, if you have especially hot summers in your area, you might want to plant your peony somewhere where it can get at least partial shade. Make sure to get the spot right the first time though, as peonies really struggle when they need to be moved.

Soil

Peonies like to have deep, moist soil that drains well. They also like their soil to have a neutral PH.

If you do choose to use fertilizer, you won’t need to use it very much. Mixing a tiny amount of fertilizer into the soil while preparing it for planting will likely be more than enough for any peony.

If you must apply fertilizer after having planted the flowers, then do so in the early summer after the flowers have already bloomed. There is no need to fertilize the soil more than once every couple of years, and in fact, doing so can be dangerous for your peonies.

Sarah bernhardt peony plant

Planting

When planting bare-root tubers, dig a hole that is about two feet deep, then create a mound of soil in the middle of the hole and place the root on top of it with the eyes facing up.

Potted peony plants should be planted so the elevation of the potting mix around the stems lines up with the soil surrounding the planting hole. Read more about planting potted peony plants.

Care

It is generally a good idea to provide some help for the stems of Sarah Bernhardt plants. There are several ways to do this, from binding the stem to a straight stick, to using three-legged Peony rings. Tomato cages can also work.

Even in the winter, there isn’t any need to mulch the flowers too much. If it is going to be very cold, you might very loosely mulch around the base of the plant. Otherwise, don’t even bother.

Remove dead flowers from the plant as soon as they stop blossoming. Cut the stems back to behind the plant’s leaves so that they don’t stick out. Peony cutting season occurs in the fall to prevent any overwintering diseases.

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Dealing with pests and diseases

Peonies are fairly pest-resistant for several reasons. They have a symbiotic relationship with some kinds of ants, where the ants take sugary nectar from the plant and in return protect it from aphids and other insectoid pests. They are also resistant to deer and rabbits, which makes them ideal if you have a great number of those near your home.

There are a few diseases, however, that can afflict peonies. Most are fungal-based and ensuring that the plant gets enough light and warmth is the best way to avoid them.

If your peonies do end up sick and you need to remove a few of them, then be sure to fully remove all of the clipped or removed peony material from the garden and either burn it or throw it away. Dead plant parts can easily spread disease to the rest of your garden, especially for plants that match the cultivar of the dead plants.

Sarah bernhardt peony

Potential problems when growing Sarah Bernhardt peonies

While peonies are pest-resistant, several problems can still occur especially with their yearly blooms. Sarah Bernhardt blooms can be especially difficult to get to bloom. If you have a Sarah Bernhardt that is late to bloom, gently feel the blossom.

If it’s soft and starting to open a little bit on the top, just wait a little longer. If it feels hard to the touch and doesn’t look like it wants to open, mix a little bit of sugar into its water the next time you water it.

If all of your peonies are having problems blooming, then they might still be recovering from a late frost. This can cause the flower to bloom later in the year than usual.

Sarah bernhardt peony
Sarah bernhardt peony
Mary Jane Duford
Mary Jane Duford

Mary Jane Duford is a gardening expert and founder of Home for the Harvest. She's also a professional engineer, certified permaculture garden designer, and master gardener in training. Mary Jane has been featured by publications such as Real Simple, Mother Earth News, Homes & Gardens, Heirloom Gardener, and Family Handyman.

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