Understanding Different Types of Peony Flowers

The peony, Paeonia spp., is a flowering perennial for USDA Hardiness Zones 3-8 that thrives in full sun. It blooms in springtime, and sometimes early summer.

The blossoms are big and flouncy, and are a staple of cottage gardens and the theme of many a botanical print and textile.

Colors include pink, purple, red, white, and yellow. Flowers consist of single, double, or semi-double layers of petals that are often fringed or two-toned. Some are fragrant.

A close up vertical image of bright pink peony flowers growing in the garden pictured on a soft focus background. To the center and bottom of the frame is green and white printed text.

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The leathery, serrated green foliage of some shades to bronze and copper in autumn, and guess what? Deer usually leave this plant alone.

In our guide to growing peonies, we discuss all you need to know to grow your own plants.

This article focuses on the types of peonies available, growth habits, and unique physical attributes.

Here’s what’s in store:

With 33 species and 15 subspecies, Paeonia is a fascinating genus that has much to offer the home gardener.

Let’s get started!

Genus Breakdown

There are three main sections into which all members of the Paeonia genus fall:

  • Onaepia contains two North America species.
  • Moutan consists of tree species from China.
  • And Paeoniae is a catch-all for all of the herbaceous Asian and European species.

The wild North American species are seldom found in cultivation, but the tree and herbaceous types have been extensively cultivated and there are numerous varieties available to home gardeners.

In addition, there is a hybrid of the tree and herbaceous types, as we’ll soon learn.

Growth Habits

Species and cultivars grow in one of three ways:

  • Herbaceous
  • Tree
  • Intersectional

Let’s find out about each.

Herbaceous

Herbaceous types are soft-stemmed plants that die down to the ground at the end of the growing season and go through a period of dormancy, before returning the following year.

A close up horizontal photo of two pink herbaceous peony blooms.
P. lactiflora ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ is an herbaceous cultivated variety that has been a favorite of peony lovers for over 100 years.

There are numerous species and cultivated varieties ranging in height and width from one to three feet.

Examples include the Chinese or common P. lactiflora, and the fern leaf P. tenuifolia.

Close up horizontal image of two red fern leaf peonies growing in the garden pictured on a soft focus background.
Fern leaf peony (P. tenuifolia) has feathery foliage, small blossoms, and a low profile.

Additional herbaceous species include woodland varieties, such as P. japonica and P. obovata.

A horizontal image of a woodland setting with bright pink and yellow flowers growing under tall trees.
P. obovata is an herbaceous woodland species.

Herbaceous types sprout as reddish shoots that rise from tuberous roots. They bloom for a week to 10 days in late spring to early summer.

Flowers are available in a variety of colors and bloom formations, as we will discuss below.

Tree

Per Rodale’s Ultimate Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, tree varieties are derived mainly from two species, P. suffruticosa and P. delavayi.

A close up horizontal image of a bright yellow flower growing in the garden pictured in bright sunshine.
P. delavayi is either maroon or yellow.

Like herbaceous types, flowers come in an array of colors and petal arrangements, and they bloom for seven to 10 days. The flowers are exceptionally large.

However, instead of dying to the ground, tree types drop their leaves and the woody stems remain bare and in place all winter.

A close up horizontal photo focusing on three red blooms of the Moutan Tree Peony.
There are many shades of P. suffruticosa.

Woody types grow more slowly than herbaceous plants, and some reach over six feet tall and five feet wide at maturity.

They are known for being the earliest bloomers of the season.

Tree cultivars are generally found under the species name P. suffructicosa, or Moutan (Chinese mǔdān).

A close up horizontal image of Paeonia rockii with cream colored petals and golden stamens, pictured in bright sunshine on a soft focus background.
Tree Peony (P. rockii) has exquisite golden stamens.

An exception to this is P. rockii, or Rock’s peony, named for Austrian botanist Joseph Rock.

Intersectional

The final group contains some of the best performers in the home garden, the intersectional hybrids.

Also known as “Itoh” peonies, they are a cross between woody and herbaceous species.

This name honors Japanese breeder Toichi Itoh, who was the first to make such a cross using the tree species P. x lemoinei, and the herbaceous cultivar P. lactiflora ‘Kakoden’ in the 1940s.

Three large yellow blooms of the Intersectional Itoh hybrid ‘Bartzella’ growing in the garden with foliage in soft focus in the background.
Intersectional Itoh hybrid Paeonia ‘Bartzella’ is prized for its yellow color.

Per Ted Griess, Extension Horticulture Assistant at the Nebraska Extension, a mature Itoh hybrid may produce over 50 dinner plate sized blossoms on stems so sturdy, no staking is required.

They are exceptionally hardy late bloomers that open closer to summer, and flower continuously for up to three weeks. This is much longer than the typical seven to 10 days of herbaceous and tree types.

A close up horizontal image of Paeonia rockii with white flowers and yellow centers growing in the garden pictured in bright sunshine.
Photo by George Chernilevsky, Wikimedia Commons, via CC BY-SA.

Like herbaceous varieties, the intersectional types have soft stems that die to the ground at season’s end.

In addition to choosing from tree, herbaceous, and intersectional plants, there is an exciting array of unique petal characteristics that render some flowers “garden variety” and others more unusual.

Let’s take a look!

Petal Characteristics

We’ve mentioned that blossoms may have a single, fully double, or semi-double flower structure.

Within these broad categories are fine distinctions painstakingly developed by breeders, including anemone, bomb, and Japanese.

They refer to the center of the blossoms, where the reproductive organs are located.

A close up horizontal image of a bright pink flower growing in the summer garden with foliage in soft focus in the background.
Herbaceous P. lactiflora ‘Globe of Light’ has single, anemone-style blooms. Photo via Alamy.

Anemone peonies are readily identified by their narrow “petaloides,” or yellow petal centers.

Bombs are dense and spherical, with a center full of true petals.

A close up horizontal image of a bright red peony flower 'Red Grace' growing in the summer garden pictured in bright sunshine.
Bomb-style Paeonia ‘Red Grace’ is a fully double herbaceous variety. Photo via Alamy.

And while there are no peonies native to Japan, a long-time favorite style in Japan has been single petal flowers with “staminodes,” petal-like structures that look like a combination of yellow stamens and shredded petals.

They are referred to as Japanese peonies.

A close up horizontal image of bright pink Paeonia lactiflora flowers growing in the garden pictured on a soft focus background.
Herbaceous Japanese style P. lactiflora ‘Neon’ has fully double blooms. Photo via Alamy.

These enchanting petal configurations are another unique trait that helps to distinguish one plant from another.

And as some are quite rare, obtaining and successfully cultivating novel types is cause for celebration by members of peony societies.

Varieties to Choose

There’s something for everyone. Whether you like herbaceous, tree, or hybrid intersectionals, you’ll find exciting options such as the following:

Honey Gold

P. lactiflora ‘Honey Gold’ is an herbaceous cultivar with Japanese style petals in a semi-double layer surrounding a lemon-yellow center.

A close up square image of Paeonia 'Honey Gold' growing in the garden pictured on a soft focus background.

P. lactiflora ‘Honey Gold’

This is a fragrant flower that blooms in late spring to early summer.

Mature dimensions are 30 to 35 inches with a spread of 28 to 36 inches.

Find ‘Honey Gold’ now from Burpee in packages containing one bare root.

Plant this herbaceous variety in the spring.

Koukamon

Paeonia suffrictosa ‘Koukamon’, aka ‘Floral Gate,’ is a Chinese tree cultivar with fully double eight-inch ruffled burgundy blossoms that deepen to black at their centers.

Mature dimensions are 48 to 60 inches tall and 24 to 36 inches wide. Bloom time is late spring to early summer.

Tree types are best planted in the fall.

All That Jazz

For an outstanding intersectional, you can’t beat Itoh hybrid Paeonia ‘All That Jazz.’

This fragrant late spring bloomer boasts masses of creamy apricot fully double blossoms splotched with burgundy. Flowers are up to six inches across, and there may be up to 50 per plant.

A close up square image of Paeonia 'All that Jazz' growing in the garden with foliage in soft focus in the background.

‘All That Jazz’

Mature dimensions are 24 to 48 inches tall and 36 inches wide.

Find ‘All That Jazz’ now from Eden Brothers.

Plant this tree-herbaceous hybrid in the fall.

A Palette of Peonies

The majority of available varieties are cultivated varieties and hybrid crosses of species native to Asia and Europe. Some are herbaceous and die to the ground at season’s end, while others have woody stems that remain in place through the winter.

The garden variety herbaceous species and cultivars are the easiest to grow, and of these, the souped-up intersectional hybrids offer a longer bloom time, larger flowers, better support of heavy flower heads, and exceptional hardiness.

A close up horizontal image of white peonies growing in the garden pictured on a soft focus background.

A charming array of petal structures ranging from single to semi-double and fully double is further enhanced by breeders’ alterations to the reproductive centers that result in uniquely attractive anemone, bomb, and Japanese styles.

What’s not to love with the bold and bouncy blooms of this cottage garden classic?

Add the perennial peony to your garden planner today, and enjoy its early season glory for many years to come.

Are you growing peonies in your garden? Let us know your favorite types in the comments section below!

If you enjoyed reading this article and would like to learn about more spring flowering plants, here are a few suggestions:

About Nan Schiller

Nan Schiller is a writer with deep roots in the soil of southeastern Pennsylvania. Her background includes landscape and floral design, a BS in business from Villanova University, and a Certificate of Merit in floral design from Longwood Gardens. An advocate of organic gardening with native plants, she’s always got dirt under her nails and freckles on her nose. With wit and hopefully some wisdom, she shares what she’s learned and is always ready to dig into a new project!

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