Plant a Classic: Perennial Peony

Paeonia

For an ornamental highlight from late spring to early summer, fill your garden beds and borders with the luscious blossoms of perennial peony.

Close up of pinkish purple peony flowers.

The peony, or Paeonia genus is the only one in the Paeoniaceae family of plants. There are 33 species native to Asia, Europe, and North America. Today’s many cultivars and hybrids are suitable for USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 3 to 8. Most are fragrant, and all make sumptuous cut flowers to enjoy in vase arrangements.

Varieties

There are herbaceous, tree, and intersectional varieties from which to choose.

Herbaceous

An herbaceous peony is one that dies down to the ground at the end of the season, goes through a period of dormancy, and returns the following year. There are two wild species that grow in the western United States: P. brownii and P. californica.

A close up photo of two pink herbaceous peony blooms.
Cultivar Herbaceous Peony (Paeonia lactiflora) ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ has been a favorite of peony lovers for over 100 years.

For home gardeners, there are the common garden variety, aka Chinese peony, P. lactiflora, and the common peony, aka garden peony, P. officinalis. They are shrubby plants that reach a height and diameter of about three feet.

In addition, there’s the fern leaf type, P. tenuifolia. It’s named for its feathery foliage and tops out at about two feet. It’s smaller stature and flowers make it suitable for rock garden planting.

Close up of two red fern leaf peonies.
Fern Leaf Peony (Paeonia tenuifolia) has feathery foliage, small blossoms, and a low profile.

At various times from late spring to summer, the herbaceous varieties begin as reddish shoots that rise from tuberous roots. Leaves are dark green and leathery, often turning to blazing shades of bronze and red in autumn. Flowers in a rainbow of colors may be comprised of single, double, or semi-double layers of petals that are often fringed or two-toned.

Reddish green peony sprouts emerging from the ground.

Deadheading blossoms encourages new growth. After flowering, the foliage makes an exceptionally rich backdrop for a succession of bed and border plantings.

Tree

Per Rodale’s Ultimate Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, tree varieties are derived mainly from two species, P. suffruticosa and P. delavayi. Like herbaceous types, flowers come in an array of colors. The foliage is also dark green and leathery, often turning bronze or red in autumn, but instead of dying back, the woody stems drop their leaves and remain bare and above ground all winter.

A photo focusing on three red blooms of the Moutan Tree Peony.
Moutan Tree Peony (Paeonia suffruticosa) has woody stems and enormous blossoms.

Tree types grow more slowly than herbaceous cultivars and hybrids, and some reach over six feet tall and five feet wide at maturity. They are known for being the earliest bloomers of the season.

A white bloom and yellow stamens of the paeoni rockii flower.
Moutan Tree Peony (Paeonia rockii) has exquisite golden stamens.

Tree cultivars are generally found under the species name P. suffructicosa, or ‘Moutan,’ (Chinese mǔdān). An exception to this is P. rockii, or Rock’s peony, named for Austrian botanist Joseph Rock.

Intersectional

This final category of Paeonia is also referred to as the ‘Itoh Hybrids,’ named for their creator, Japanese horticulturist Toichi Itoh. Each is a cross between herbaceous and tree varieties that yield the best of both worlds, reaching about three feet in height and dying to the ground at season’s end, but with the giant flowers typical of tree types.

Three large yellow blooms of the Intersectional Itoh hybrid ‘Bartzella’

Caption: Intersectional Itoh hybrid ‘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-plated sized blossoms on stems so sturdy, no staking is required. They are late bloomers that flower continuously for up to three weeks.

Peonies have been prized in Asia for centuries, for their applications in herbal medicine as well as their ornamental beauty.

A Note on Petals

We’ve mentioned that blossoms may be have a single, double, or semi-double flower structure. Within these broad categories are fine distinctions that have been achieved by breeders who mastermind cultivars and hybrids.

Macro shot of double flowered pink peony.
Blooms may be single, double, or semi-double structured.

You may find additional descriptions like ‘Japanese,’ ‘anemone,’ and ‘bomb.’ In additional to petal structure, they reference characteristics like the visibility of stamens. I recommend contacting an organization such as the American Peony Society to pursue the peony to this degree.

Cultivating a Classic

While peonies may be grown from seed, this is usually the domain of botanists. For home gardeners, it’s usually bare rootstock or potted plants, and the time to plant is usually in the fall, although some varieties can be spring-planted.

A garden spade and four pieces of peony root stock.
The bare rootstock of Paeonia ready to plant.

Choose a location that gets about six hours of sun a day. If you live in a warm climate, some afternoon shade is good, especially for light-colored blossoms prone to fading, and single-flower varieties. If you’ve ever traveled to an Asian botanical garden, you may have seen clever ways to partially shade prized plants with parasols and wicker tents.

Peony plants under a Japanese style umbrella.

For a full season of blossoms, consider planting three types: early spring- herbaceous, mid-spring trees, and late-blooming intersectionals.

You’ll need organically-rich soil, so amend with compost as needed. Be sure that it drains well, because the tuberous roots of Paeonia will become saturated and prone to rotting if they sit in standing water.

Allow for a mature width of about three feet for herbaceous and intersectionals, and four to five for tree types. While it may take years to achieve such stature, you’ll be glad you planned for it from day one. Plants that are too crowded don’t get good air circulation and become vulnerable to disease, pests, and rotting.

Prepare your soil by working it into a friable, or crumbly consistency down to about 12 inches. I like to mix in some granules of a slow-acting organic fertilizer that is low in nitrogen. Now, here’s the key to success: place rootstock with the bud shoots, or “eyes” are no more than two inches below the soil surface. For potted plants, place to a depth that allows the top of the pot soil to be equal to the ground level.

Gently pack earth around the rootstock to stabilize it, and make sure to leave no air pockets underneath. Tamp down gently and water. Tamp down again. Water generously as the growing season begins.

Maroon Spring Peony Shoots in morning sunlight.
Fresh spring foliage.

In the first year, foliage is the main attraction, forming a dark green, texturally appealing backdrop that showcases other garden specimens. By autumn, the leaves of some tree varieties will blaze red or bronze before dropping. Herbaceous and intersectionals may do the same before the entire plants succumb to the first frost and seem to melt away. Remove all wilted foliage at this point.

In colder regions, you may want to apply a thin layer of mulch around the tree roots and over herbaceous and intersectional locations. However, use caution, as mulch encourages water retention, and in an unusually wet winter, you may rot your roots.

Autumn leaves of a Herbaceous Peony

In addition, you may want to mark the locations of plants that die to the ground so that when spring comes you don’t accidentally step on their new shoots. By the second year, you may have your first blossoms.

Paeonia takes time to establish, but left undisturbed, it pushes deep roots into the earth. You may divide herbaceous and intersectionals in the fall as you would other tuberous perennials, however, plants may be shocked by the experience, and may not produce flowers the following year. Tree types may be propagated by grafting.

Once your plants are underway and blooming prolifically, take the time to deadhead spent blossoms to encourage even more blooming, and cut stems to enjoy indoors in vase arrangements.

Maintenance and Troubleshooting

Each spring, as the growing season gets underway, give your plants a dose of slow-acting organic granular fertilizer with a low nitrogen content. Too much nitrogen may result in too many leaves and too few flowers.

In addition, for tree types, now is the time to snip off any tiny shoots growing up from the rootstock. Most trees are grafted, so the rootstock is seldom the same as what you are cultivating above ground. This is also a good time to prune away any dead woody branches, or those that misfigure an attractive, compact shape.

For all plants, maintain even moisture during the growing season to achieve optimal development and blooming.

A complaint often heard by newbie peony growers is that the flowers droop. I know from experience that heavy double-flower varieties saturated with rainwater do hang their heads low. Help them out with a simple fix: a hoop support.

You might like this 18-inch style available on Amazon. Simply place it in the ground over your sprouting herbaceous varieties and it will be there to lend support as they grow. Intersectional varieties do not generally require staking.

In addition to the unhappy look of droopy heads is their vulnerability to pests and disease. You are much less likely to have issues with single-flower types because they don’t fill with water the way the doubles do. Overall, however, there are few disease and pest concerns with properly cared for plants.

With adequate sunlight, drainage, and air circulation, you may prevent the potentially root-rotting botrytis fungus from taking hold. If you see spots on your leaves and buds that fail to open, you may be at risk. You may try snipping off damaged areas and treating with an anti-fungal agent, but if they’re extensive, you’re better off digging up the plant and disposing of it.

A close up photo of ants on a peony flower bud.
Don’t panic if you see ants munching on your peony flower buds. They are clearing away a gummy substance that seals the bud shut and with no ants, no blooms.

We’ve already mentioning mulch in cold regions. Just be sure not to layer it too thickly, as plants may fail if they are buried too deeply. And as for the ants commonly seen crawling over buds waiting to burst, there’s no apparent symbiotic relationship, just a craving for the buds’ sweetness.

Cultivars to Consider

Now that you have a basic working knowledge of the Paeonia genus and how to cultivate its showstopping blossoms, you’re ready to purchase good quality plants and/or rootstock. You may like the following:

Red Magic

Crimson double flowers and an understated scent characterize this mid-season bloomer with a three-foot spread.

PEONY ROOTS - RED MAGIC

Red Magic

This cultivar grows up to 36 inches tall and 36 sixes wide and blooms in the later spring to full summer and is easy to grow.

Available from Eden Brothers in packages of two, four, or 10 roots.

Raspberry Sunday

This pretty cultivar is colored like it’s namesake featuring double pink and cream blooms. It makes for beautiful centerpieces in the flower garden and works just as well in flower arrangements.

PEONY ROOTS - RASPBERRY SUNDAE

Raspberry Sunday

The lightly scented and deer resistant variety grows up to 25-36 inches with Double Flowers 5-7″ in diameter and blooms in the mid-spring.

Find it now at Eden Brothers.

Shirley Temple

Although Shirley Temple was a star on the big screen, this peony variety can be the star in you flowerbeds! Featuring large 5-8 inch blooms that range from a soft baby pink to a cream, this variety is great for those who have a pastel color pallet in their landscaping scheme.

PEONY ROOTS - SHIRLEY TEMPLE

Shirley Temple

The Shirley Temple is a bit shorter than most herbaceous style peonies reaching 25 inches. It blooms in the late spring to early summer.

Available from Eden Brothers.

Where to Buy?

It’s important that you purchase from reputable suppliers with good refund policies. We suggest Eden Brothers for your needs.

See all of Eden Brother’s Peony Selections for Spring Planting

See all of Eden Brother’s Peony Selections for Fall Planting

Showy Spring to Summer

Several years ago, I was given a gorgeous magenta double-flower gem dug from a neighbor’s decades old garden. Sadly, it failed to return one spring, and I know why.

We had had a water main break in January, and my driveway border garden took a beating from ice and rock salt. And, although the peony is somewhat salt tolerant, per the pros at the University of Vermont Extension Department of Plant and Soil Science, it has its limits.

Keep this in mind when you plant yours. The good news is that they are deer and rabbit resistant, although remember, a starving animal may eat anything he can find.

Close up photo of a deep maroon colored Herbaceous Peony 'Buckeye Belle' bloom.
Semi-double spring blooming ‘Buckeye Belle’ is a cross between P. officinalis and P. lactiflora.

Grow early, mid-season, and late bloomers to enjoy the full spring-to-summer season. And if you just don’t have the space for them to grow in the garden, consider cultivating these stalwart perennials in containers.

It’s time to add the peony to your garden planner. Who knows? It may be your grandchildren who pick bouquets of its lovely blossoms in years to come.

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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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