All About Peonies

All About Peonies

Botanically known as Paeonia, peonies are native to Asia, Europe and Western North America. Their history goes back to ancient days where they once were China’s national flower and bred in its imperial courts. The flower’s popularity spread to Japan then eventually France and England. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, they began taking off in the United States. According to Greek mythology, Paeon was a student of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine and healing. One version of the story goes that Paeon used a peony to treat a wound for Pluto. When Asclepius became murderously jealous of his pupil, Zeus saved Paeon by turning him into a peony flower.
Lemon Chiffon Peony

Types of Peonies
While the American Peony Society identifies over 6500 peony cultivars, they basically fall in three types: herbaceous peonies, tree peonies and Itoh peonies. Each type flowers at a slightly different time and length, so plant a mix for an extended season of blooms.

-Herbaceous peonies are the most familiar peony and range from simple singles to multi-petaled doubles measuring up to 8” across. The plants grow 24”-36” and die back to the ground each winter. When shopping, you’ll find them in shades of pink, red and white. Their flower forms are classified as single, double, semi-double, Japanese, anemone and bomb double. They start blooming in late spring approximately the same time as lilacs and last for several weeks.
Pink Hawaiian Coral Peonies
-Tree peonies have woody stems like a shrub and reach up to five feet. They are the first peonies to bloom in spring typically at the same time as tulips. Their flowers are much larger than herbaceous peonies, reaching up to 10” across, and come in a wider range of colors including lavender and deep red.
-Intersectional peonies, also known as Itoh peonies, are hybrids that combine the vigor of herbaceous peonies with the sturdiness and color variety of tree peonies. They bloom a full month, and a mature plant can produce up to 50 blooms. The plants die back to the ground like herbaceous peonies, making them hardier than tree peonies.
Julia Rose Peonies
Growing Peonies
Peonies thrive with full sun and well-drained soil. (Tree peonies can tolerate more shade.) Plant peonies 2’-3’ feet apart, keeping the crown of the roots even with the soil surface. Peonies take time to become fully established, so be patient and wait at least two years, ideally three, before cutting an abundance of blooms. Support plants and their heavy blooms with ringed stakes or grow-through supports-a bit like tomato cages. After a rain, quickly shake off water to help droopy peonies spring back. To encourage larger blooms, try removing all but one bud per stem. This pushes the plants energy to the remaining bloom to make it as big as possible. If properly cared for, a peony plant can outlast its gardeners, living up to 100 years.

various peony varieties

Pests and Diseases
Peonies are relatively pest and disease resistant. The plants’ scent discourages deer and other pests. Occasionally, deer will munch on early spring shoots, especially in areas with high deer populations. If that’s the case, spray with a repellent in early spring until leaves fully mature. Also, don’t sweat if ants appear on peony blooms; they’re drawn to the plant’s sugary substance and won’t hurt the plants. To minimize fungal diseases and viruses, prevention is key. Space plants apart to allow air circulation, avoid planting in low wet areas and water only the plant’s base not its leaves. Also, remove and discard any diseased foliage in fall. For more details, see this guide by the Missouri Botanical Garden.

Learn More
For more information, visit the American Peony Society’s website and growing guide.
Peonies at Groovy Plants Ranch
Party on, plant people! Peony Palooza is happening at The Ranch, April 5-7. We’ll feature food trucks and 2,000 premium peonies—coral, yellow, soft pink, doubles, multicolored blooms, Itohs and tree peonies—all grown here at the Ranch!
Photo credit: Devroomen
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