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Portlands peonies have a problem

Are your peonies puny? You're not alone. Experts call this the worst year in the last 20 for botrytis, a fungus rampant in cool, wet weather.

Not to worry, though, it's a fleeting problem. Next year might be completely different. As for this year, I've got some tips to help you salvage what's left and enjoy what you have.

• Banish botrytis: Botrytis turns the leaves brownish black (sometimes kind of fuzzy), and the foliage and flowers shrivel. Man, it is ugly. This year I've lost a handful of leaves on one plant, but the others seem to have escaped unscathed.

If you're seeing the telltale signs of the illness, pick off all infected parts of the plant. You have to be ruthless. If disposal means cutting the stem down to the ground, do it. The fungus can infect all parts of the plant except the roots. Thus you can whack the shriveled stem to the ground, if need be.

• Foil the fungus: The owners of Pacific Peonies outside Canby resort to a spray program. Theresa Snelson says you won't find a fungicide labeled specifically for peonies, 'so just use products made for roses and spray on the same schedule.'

For the most part, that entails spraying a fungicide as soon as the new growth starts to push up from the ground. Spray every seven to 10 days. The directions on the bottle explain the rest.

That done, you can concentrate on enjoying what you have.

How about having a vase full of homegrown peonies in August? Yes, it'll be far past their bloom time, but it can be done.

Peonies will last for months if they're stored in the refrigerator. While the flowers are still on the plant, choose a bud that's showing color and just about to open but isn't quite there yet. Cut it and swaddle bud and stem airtight in plastic wrap.

Chris Baglien of Pacific Peonies says buds keep three to four months this way. The flowers open when the stems are plunged into a vase of water.

Amaze your friends and fool your enemies with that little trick.

The other way to have peonies all year long is to buy them freeze-dried. Traditional air-drying doesn't work on peonies because they have such high water content. The process of freeze-drying allows the petals to keep their shape the whole flower looks remarkably fresh.

Freeze-dried, they last as long as you want. Simply blow off any dust with a blow-dryer set on low. Because most of us don't have a freeze-dryer, you'll have to buy the flowers already freeze-dried. Pacific Peonies, for instance, sells them.

One final word about peonies: If you want a showstopper, seek out the new plants called 'intersectional' peonies. They are a rare cross between tree peonies and garden (herbaceous) peonies. What stunners.

I recently got one called 'Bartzella,' in my estimation one of the most beautiful flowers in the world. Yellow double flowers are nearly the size of dinner plates, and it has the frilly leaves you see on tree peonies.

They don't come cheap, though. You'll need an inheritance to afford them. Most intersectionals are priced at more than $100, if not $250.