Pretty Peonies

Pretty Peonies

May 24th 2024

By S Mason and KK

Springtime brings an abundance of beauty and color in the floral world, but few can compare to the peony. Native to Asia, Southern Europe and Western North America, the peony has been venerated by poets and gardeners alike for thousands of years. On the whole, peonies are very hardy plants, often thriving and blooming for over 100 years.  Let's take a look at the role this plant can play in your garden.

Peonies bloom from mid-spring to early summer, depending on the variety.  The show is short-lived, about 7-10 days, but impressive.

Types of Peonies

The peony comes in three varieties: Herbaceous, Intersectional and Tree.

  • Herbaceous peonies (Paeonia lactiflora, P. tenuifolia, P. officinalis and others) die back in the winter and reemerge in the spring. They grow between 2 -4 feet tall and are usually just as wide. The blooms on herbaceous peonies range from 2” – 10” in diameter in colors ranging from white to pink to red. 

  • The tree peony (Paeonia suffruticosa, P. delayvayi and others) is a deciduous shrub and loses its leaves in the fall, but its woody stems remain intact throughout the winter. The tree peony can grow anywhere from 4’ to 10’ tall and will do best in an area with dappled sunlight. All types of peonies grow in USDA zones 3-8, though the tree peonies will also grow in Zone 9, and herbaceous peonies do better in colder climates.

  • The intersectional, often called 'Itoh', peony is a cross between the herbaceous and tree peony and exhibits the larger blooms of the tree peony but dies back in the winter. They grow about 3’ tall and wide and have a longer blooming period than either the herbaceous or tree peonies. The intersectional varieties also offer more bloom color options including yellows and golds.

  • North American native peonies are Brown's peony (P. brownii) and California peony (P. californica).  Brown's peony is usually found in mountainous regions of northwest North America, while California peony hails from a limited area in southwest California.  Neither would make as grand a show as the other species, but the heavily incised foliage is attractive, and the smaller reddish-brown, yellow-edged flowers are interesting.
    Itoh peony 'Bartzella' makes a sunny splash in the garden, partnering beautifully with blue and purple irises.

    Tips for planting, transplanting, and dividing

        • Peonies prefer soil with a neutral pH balance that drains well. If your soil is heavy clay or sandy, mix in some compost or other organic matter.

      • Space peonies 3-4 feet apart to allow for good air circulation to prevent foliar diseases like powdery mildew.

      • For herbaceous and intersectional varieties, choose a location that gets full sun (6 hours) for best blooming. While some peonies can get by with less, all will bloom and grow better with full sun. The tree peony needs dappled light or part sun (3-4 hours) for long life and to prevent the flowers from aging as quickly.

    • When siting peonies, consider their year-round effect, as the blooming period is limited.  The rest of the season they will make a fine green backdrop for other plants, or an excellent informal low hedge.

      • When planting bare root peonies, never place the peony eyes (buds) lower than 2” below the soil line. This will ensure best blooming. If planting containerized plants, plant the top of the soil level with the surrounding ground.

      • Commercially grown tree peonies are usually grafted onto P. lactiflora rootstock. For this reason, be sure that the graft union is planted 6 inches below the soil level. This should prevent suckering of the root stock. P. lactiflora shoots are shiny red, while tree peony shoots are a lighter dull red. If suckers appear, check to see if they are originating from below the graft to be sure. Remove P. lactiflora suckers as soon as they appear at the point of origin with a clean, sharp knife.

      • Heavy rains when in full bloom can drag the large blooms down to the ground. Help the stems of the peony by providing support through the use of peony rings. If you place them early enough in Spring, the peonies will grow through them and will help them to remain upright as they grow and bloom.

      • Don’t kill the ants! The ants you see crawling over your peony buds are just there for the nectar and may help rid your plant of other pests. And you don't need ants to make them bloom--that's just a myth.

      • Cut back herbaceous and intersectional peonies to the ground after first frost to avoid overwintering disease. Also remove any diseased foliage immediately during the season and pick up any damaged leaves that may fall to prevent spreading the problem. Fresh foliage will often regrow that season.

      • Peonies, unlike other perennials, rarely need dividing. If you want to share with a friend, don’t plan to divide until fall, and make sure you leave 3-5 eyes per clump.

      • Lastly, don’t forget that most peonies may not bloom for 1-3 years after planting from bare root or transplanting, so don’t give up on them. With a little time and the right conditions, you will have gorgeous blooms for years and years to come!
    • Super-Edg installs securely with steel stakes
      P. lactiflora 'Pink Hawaiian Coral' bears semi-double to fully double flowers 
    • Everedge Classic creates a supremely clean line between lawn and garden bed
      P. lactiflora 'Top Hat' has Japanese style flowers
    • Old favorite lactiflora variety, pink Sarah Bernhardt, with fully double blooms
    • P. lactiflora 'Nippon Beauty' shows the semi-double flower form
    • P. lactiflora 'Rome' is part of the Patio Peony series, bred for stronger stems and a more compact habit, perfect for containers and smaller spaces.
    • Super-Edg installs securely with steel stakes
      P. lactiflora 'Monsieur Jules Elie' was bred in France in the late 1800s, and has huge flowers up to 8" wide.  Plan on staking this beauty!
    • Everedge Classic creates a supremely clean line between lawn and garden bed
      P. lactiflora 'Raspberry Sundae' has 2-toned blooms of soft pink and yellow
    • P. tenuifolia, fernleaf peony, is a smaller growing plant to 2' with soft, needle-like foliage and red flowers
    • P. officinalis plena 'Rosea' showing the "bomb" form of the common peony flower
    • P. officinalis rubra plena is a centuries old variety originating in Europe, often called 'Memorial Day Peony' in the US
    • Purple tree peony
    • P. suffruticosa 'Jing Yu Tien Chen' with bicolored blooms of white and deep purple
    • P. suffruticosa 'Lutea Souvenir'
    • Yellow tree peony, P. delayvai var. lutea is sometimes hybridized with P. suffruticosa
    • 'Jing Yun Guan' white tree peony
    • Peony Itoh hybrid 'Copper Kettle'
    •  Peony Itoh hybrid 'Scarlet Heaven'
    • Peony hybrid 'Border Charm'
    • Itoh hybrid peony 'Cora Louise'
    • Itoh hybrid peony 'Hillary'

    Photos in this article courtesy of Ball Horticulture, Inc.,

    You may also like

    Fall Perennials to Suit any Garden
    person_outline Kerry Kelley
    Ah, the glory of a massive Joe Pye Weed in full September bloom, or the golden glow of amsonia foliage with the setting sun behind. Two vistas that I’ll never see in my 20 x 20 yard. I envy those with too much space to fill—for me it’s difficult to fit four seasons of [...]
    Guys and Dahlias: Tips on Growing this Fabulous Flower from the Experts
    person_outline Kerry Kelley
    local_offer #Dahlias
    This spring, as I was posting to our Instagram account, I spied a photo so intriguingly beautiful I had to spend a few minutes really looking at it. That's kind of a rare thing these days, so I decided to find out a bit more about the creator. I discovered the lovely website of two [...]
    Fragrant Annuals and Perennials for your Garden
    person_outline No authors
    local_offer No tags
    Fragrant Annuals and Perennials  Few experiences rival the joy of strolling through a garden bursting with sweet scents that tantalize the senses. Fragrant plants add an extra dimension to any outdoor space, transforming it into a haven of sensory delight. Whether you're [...]