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The peony is the queen of the spring flower garden. These voluptuous blooms are beloved for good reason!
The peony is a flowering plant known for opulent blooms, often with extravagant layers of petals, in shades of pink, white, red, purple, and sometimes even orange and yellow. Peonies are easy to care for, blooming reliably year after year in the spring with minimal maintenance. There are several dozen species of peony native to Europe, Asia, and North America, plus countless modern hybrid cultivars. Peonies grow best in temperate climate gardens with warm sunny summers and cold winters.
Read on to learn all about peonies and growing peony plants in the garden.
The peony (Paeonia) is a flowering plant grown both as a flower garden ornamental and as a cut flower for fresh floral bouquets. There are approximately 33 species in the genus Paeonia, most of which are native to Asia, but also several to Europe and to Western North America. Peony plants have been a favorite of gardeners for centuries and have been extensively bred using natural methods to create thousands of gorgeous varieties.
Peony plants grow in three different forms: herbaceous, tree, and intersectional. Most garden peonies are herbaceous, growing to a height of 1′-3′ tall each year before dying back to their roots in the wintertime. There are also tree peonies, which have a thin woody trunk like a small tree and tend to grow between 2′-8′ tall. Lastly, intersectional peonies are a new category of herbaceous-tree hybrid plants. First developed by Toichi Itoh in the 1960s, these types have flowers and foliage like tree peonies but can be cut back to the ground in the fall like herbaceous peonies.
Peonies are easy to care for and grow well in Zones 2 to 8. They are perennial plants that are capable of surviving very cold winters to produce beautiful flowers year after year. The flowers bloom in the springtime, typically in April, May, or June. The blooming season for each peony plant is short, lasting only 1-2 weeks. The season can be extended by planting different varieties, including some that bloom early in peony season and some that bloom late in peony season. Some varieties are quite fragrant while others have only a subtle scent. Peonies symbolize happiness, love, romance, wealth, beauty, and honor.
Tip: Wondering how to pronounce the word “peony”? Try thinking of it like “pea”-“oh”-“knee”. Just say those three words quickly together to remember how the word peony is pronounced. Put the emphasis on the first part of the word (“pea”).
There are about a dozen peony varieties that are quite popular among home gardeners and florists. These cultivars tend to be the best peonies to plant for most gardeners as they tend to be reliable bloomers with low maintenance requirements. Here are some popular peony varieties to consider:
Peonies are expensive to buy because the plants grow very slowly and it can take quite a while for nurseries to propagate new plants. Peony plants tend to cost between $10-$30 dollars, although specialty types (rare cultivars, tree peonies, intersectional peonies) may cost quite a bit more. The dormant bare roots tend to be most affordable (usually at $10-$15) while potted peony plants sold in the spring tend to be a bit more expensive (usually $15-$30).
Peonies are planted either from potted nursery plants or from bare-root peonies (sometimes called peony bulbs). While peonies were traditionally planted only in the fall, modern availability of peony plants is best in the spring at garden centers while specialty retailers tend to ship in both spring and fall. Fall-planted peonies tend to become established in the soil more quickly and reliably.
Peonies grow best in Zones 2-8 (see the USDA Plant Hardiness Map). These plants thrive in full sun planting locations that receive at least 6-8 hours of direct sunlight per day. Peony plants prefer sandy loam soil rich in nutrients that drains out excess water easily. They should also be planted in an area where they can be watered deeply and frequently for the first few years as the roots become established. Peony plants routinely live for decades, so be sure to choose the spot carefully!
Choose a planting spot for the peony where the leaves will receive 6-8 hours of direct sunlight per day. A full sunlight planting location will allow for maximum photosynthesis, resulting in a wonderful show of spring blooms. In warmer areas with harsh afternoon sun, some shade during the afternoon/evening can help the flower blooms last longer on the plant. This is especially true for the delicate petals of tree peonies, which last much longer when given shade in the afternoon.
Secondly, choose a location with water in mind. The peony should be close to a water source for easy watering, or ideally, located along a drip irrigation line for consistent moisture. Secondly, the soil in this location should drain water easily. While peonies are tolerant of clay soil, they are not tolerant of growing in puddles of water. Some gardeners make a mounded flower bed with loamy garden soil that’s elevated above the surrounding area, allowing for easy drainage.
Next, try to find a spot with sandy loam soil. Peonies do tend to grow best in these types of soils with adequate air pockets and drainage paths, but they are tolerant of clay soils, especially if the plants are slightly raised up so as not to be located where water may pool and suffocate the roots. Heavy clay soil can be amended with organic compost and sand to create a more favorable mix for the peonies prior to planting. Mix the compost and sand into the top 1′-2′ feet of soil before planting for best results. Peonies are tolerant of different pH levels, growing best in neutral to slightly alkaline soil.
Other factors to look for when choosing a planting location for your peony include garden design, interaction with other plants, pressure from weeds, and wind exposure. Peonies have gorgeous flowers and are generally planted in a location where the blooms can be seen and enjoyed. The roots of these plants, however, do not enjoy the competition from trees, shrubs, or weeds, tending to grow best when the roots have room to spread out and access nutrients and moisture and the leaves have adequate air circulation around them. Lastly, the heavy flowers and herbaceous stems are prone to blowing over in strong winds, making sheltered planting spots preferable.
“Plan carefully before you plant your peony. They have been known to live happily in the same spot for more than 50 years, and they strongly resent having their roots disturbed.”Peonies, by Pamela McGeorge
Bare root peonies, also called peony bulbs, are generally planted in the fall or early spring. Peony roots/bulbs are often sold in stores from March-April, while specialty nurseries tend to ship their bare root peonies in September-November. Spring-planted peonies can be planted as soon as the soil has thawed and can be worked. Fall-planted peonies are best planted before the first frost (as a guideline) if possible to give the roots a few weeks to settle into the surrounding soil before it freezes.
Plant your bare root peonies as soon as possible after receiving them or bringing them home. If you can’t plant them right away, store them in a cool spot (about 40°F/5°C, like the veggie drawer in the fridge) for up to two weeks. Once you’re ready to plant, unpackage the roots and soak them in a bowl of lukewarm water for 30 mins to an hour to hydrate them. Also, take some time before planting to clear any weeds or dead plant debris away from the planting area.
Dig a hole that’s as deep as the peony root and about twice as wide. Examine the peony root, looking for the pink/white buds. These “eyes” will sprout up as the stems and flowers and should be positioned at the top so the stems can grow straight upwards. Arrange the soil so that the “eyes” of the peony are about 1″ below the surrounding soil surface. Peony eyes planted right at the surface may be damaged by fluctuating temperatures in particularly cold climates, while peony eyes planted deeper than 2″ below the soil line may not flower at all (in any growing zone).
Once the peony root is positioned, backfill the hole with the soil that came out of it. If your soil is nutrient-poor, you may want to mix a starter fertilizer into the backfill soil such as Espoma’s BioTone Starter Plus. Water the newly-planted root deeply after planting, watching to make sure the water drains down into the soil nicely and doesn’t pool on the surface. Give the surface of the soil a thin surface mulch with some organic compost (homemade or storebought).
Potted peony plants from the nursery are quite easy to plant. Start by pulling out any weeds in the planting area and removing any fallen leaves or other dead plant debris.
Planting holes for peony plants should be wide, but not too deep. Aim for a hole that’s twice as wide as the plant pot that the peony is currently in. The hole should be only as deep as the potting mix inside the planter pot.
Remove the peony plant from the nursery planter pot and examine the root ball. Potted peony plants are rarely root-bound, but if there are lots of visible roots on the outside of the root ball, they can be loosened up.
Place the root ball in the hole. Check the soil levels. The elevation of the potting mix around the base of the stems should line up with the elevation of the soil surface surrounding the hole.
Gently backfill the planting hole with the soil that was dug out of it. Try not to leave air pockets, but don’t press on the plant’s roots either. Once the hole has been backfilled, water the soil over the entire planting area. If the soil in the hole has settled significantly, top it up to the level of the surrounding soil. After watering, mulch the top of the soil with a thin layer of organic garden mulch such as homemade compost.
Peonies are generally low-maintenance in the garden. These plants are not hard to care for, especially after the plants have become established in the soil after a few years.
Caring for peonies starts by giving them a thorough watering in the early spring in all but the dampest climates. Then place a thin layer of organic compost over the area, focusing on side-dressing the plants and trying not to add too much material right on top of the plants themselves. For peony varieties that require staking, take time in early spring (before the shoots grow too tall) to place a support ring (I like the Grow-Through Peony Supports from Gardener’s Supply).
In terms of watering, peonies do best when the soil is evenly moist. This is especially important during the first few years after planting as the roots become established in the surrounding soil. Healthy, established peony plants can be quite drought-tolerant during the heat of summer as the plants store moisture in their larger carrot-like roots. Peonies tend to need the most water in the springtime as they grow most of their foliage and again in the fall as the root systems prepare for wintertime.
Peonies are best watered at the base of the plant. Try not to get foliage damp when watering, as moist conditions can encourage fungal disease. These plants are best watered with a drip irrigation system on an automated timer to provide the plants with consistently moist soil.
Mulching peonies with high-quality organic mulch like organic compost is a good gardening practice. The mulch helps to keep moisture in the soil, suppress weeds, provide plant nutrients, prevent soil from splashing up on the leaves during rainfall, and potentially suppress fungal disease. Do not bury the crown in the plant with mulch. A thin 1/2″ to 1″ thick side dressing around the base of the plant is sufficient.
Peony plants are generally fed in mid-spring when the young stems are about a foot tall and the leaves are just starting to unfurl. Peonies do well with most perennial flower garden foods and bulb fertilizers. Here are some great options:
Be sure to follow the application and frequency instructions on the fertilizer you choose.
Some varieties of peony are self-supporting (even in bloom) while others require some sort of support to hold up the massive flowers. You can stake individual stems with short wooden stakes or surround the plant with a peony ring. I like the Gardener’s Supply Grow-Through Peony Support Rings as they are low-profile and don’t detract from the plant’s appearance. Try to place them early in the season so that the stems can naturally grow through the support.
Peony plants require minimal pruning during the growing season. Start by deadheading the peonies after flowering. Cut the flower stem back to the nearest leaves, being careful to leave as much foliage on the plant as possible. The plant needs its leaves for photosynthesis to create energy during the summer for next year’s flowers. Cutting the stem back to a strong leaf also minimizes the appearance of stubs poking up from the shrub-like bush.
The whole peony plant can be cut back down to the ground in late fall. This is usually done after the first hard frost when foliage is starting to decline naturally. You can trim each stem off at its base or leave a few inches of the stems poking up so you can find the plant in early spring. Peonies grow back each spring by sprouting bright pink shoots at the soil level.
“Peonies don’t require complex fertilization, spraying, pruning, or dividing, and they can live a long, long time, with their hardy natures and beautiful blooms.”Martha’s Flowers, by Martha Stewart & Kevin Sharkey
Peony plants are generally cut back in the late fall to the ground. Peonies do not often require mulching for winter protection, but it can be beneficial in very cold zones. Mulching may be especially important if the plant is new and may not have the root structure to survive repeated freeze-thaw cycles. A 4″ thick covering of shredded leaves can be applied over the whole plant in the late fall after the stems have been cut back and the ground is frozen hard.
Peony plants are classified by the shape of the flower, the color of the flower, and the type of overall plant. The classifications for many popular cultivars can be found in the American Peony Society’s Cultivar Registry.
There are three main types of peony plants: herbaceous peonies, tree peonies, and intersectional peonies.
Herbaceous peonies, sometimes referred to as a “peony bush”, are classic perennial flowers that sprout up from their roots each spring and die back to their roots every winter. Tree peonies have woody stems that remain standing through winter like a deciduous tree. Intersectional peonies, also called Itoh peonies (after the breeder who developed them), are a cross between traditional herbaceous peonies and tree peonies.
Here are some common varieties of herbaceous peony:
Here are some popular tree peonies:
Here are some specialty intersectional (Itoh) peonies:
There are six categories of peony bloom shapes: Single, Japanese, Anemone, Semi-Double, Bombe, and Full Double.
Single peonies look like wild peonies, with a single ring of 5+ relatively flat petals around the outside and pollen-bearing stamens in the center of the flower. Japanese peonies are similar to Single peonies, but the center stamens have been transformed into staminodes (the pollen is enclosed in thickened tissue). Anemone peonies have stamens that are further transformed into “petalodes” – skinny petal-like structures that are more substantial than staminodes.
Along the same lines, the inner segments of Bombe peonies have transformed to the point where they are truly inner petals. Bombe peonies look like a fluffy pom-pom sitting on a saucer of flatter petals. Full Double peonies are those in which all stamens and carpels are transformed into petals. They have the appearance of a flower inside a flower (hence the term double). Semi-Double peonies have prominent stamens and/or potentially partial transformation of stamens into inner petals, but have a higher volume of petals and visual “bulk” than Single/Japanese/Anemone type peonies.
Here are some examples of each type of peony flower form:
There are six broad color categories that most blooms fit into: pink peonies, white peonies, red peonies, purple peonies, yellow peonies, and orange peonies.
Here are some popular pink types of peonies to plant in your garden:
Here are some great varieties of white peonies for the garden:
Here are some red peony varieties to plant:
Here are some purple peony varieties:
Here are some beautiful yellow peonies to check out:
Here are some orange types of peony for the garden:
Peonies make wonderful cut flowers for use in bouquets and other floral arrangements. Herbaceous peonies are the most common types used by florists and are becoming quite popular in spring bouquets and event decor. Itoh peonies are also sometimes used as cut flowers, while tree peonies are generally left to bloom in the garden. If growing herbaceous peony flowers for a flower show or competition, you may wish to snip off the side buds to allow the plant to put more energy into a larger exhibition-size main flower bud.
Peonies tend to bloom in April, May, or June, depending on the local climate, seasonal conditions, and planting location. Tree peonies tend to bloom first, followed by single herbaceous peonies, larger-flowered herbaceous peonies, and finally the intersectional peonies. While each plant blooms only for a week or two, peony season can be extended to about 6 weeks if a range of varieties is planted from each of the three types.
To harvest peonies at home for bouquets, look for flower buds that are soft like marshmallows. Using clean, sharp shears, cut the stem off so it is long enough for your display vase/vessel, but hopefully so that 3 or more leaves remain on the plant on that stem. Try not to cut off all the buds from a single peony plant – leave at least half of the buds on the peony plant to bloom outdoors.
Remove any leaves on the peony flower stem unless they are visually important for your arrangement. Store the cut flowers in water immediately and re-cut the ends when arranging. Double peonies cut at the soft-bud stage can last up to 10 days in water if the water is changed daily. Single peonies tend not to last as long as doubles. Peonies of any type cut after the flowers have opened will typically last 3-5 days in the vase.
To harvest peonies for chilled storage, cut them when they have well-developed buds, but while the buds are still firm. Do not wait until the marshmallow-soft stage to cut them. However, peony blooms that are cut while still hard often do not open at all. It is therefore important to observe the peony buds on the plant regularly so they can be harvested at the perfect “firm” stage. Cut peony flowers are generally stored at 32°F (0°C) in refrigerated storage for up to six weeks.
Peony plants are vulnerable to very few diseases and pests, although there are a few troublesome culprits (namely fungal diseases).
Botrytis is the most common fungal disease affecting peony plants. Botrytis blight on peonies can cause young ~6″-8″ shoots to rot off the base of the plant, soft brown/black foliage, and potentially a gray mold at the base of the plant. Leaves that do grow may have dark black spots, and flower buds can turn black and decay before they can flower.
If botrytis blight is suspected, start by removing and disposing of any affected plant tissue as soon as possible. Then treat the remaining stems, leaves, and the base of the plant with an organic fungicide, following application instructions and frequencies listed on the package. If botrytis has been a problem before, spray the base of the plant and the young shoots in early spring with an organic fungicide like lime sulfur as a preventative measure (preventative treatment is much more effective than trying to treat an active outbreak).
Botrytis can be discouraged by cutting back peonies in the fall and removing the foliage from the garden. It can also be discouraged by planting peonies at least 3-4 feet from each other to allow for adequate air circulation. Also avoid watering the plant’s foliage, watering only the soil at the base of the plant. In particularly bad botrytis situations, the garden soil can be removed from the area and replaced with a fresh sterilized mix. The base of the plant should be sprayed with an organic fungicide (copper, sulfur) in early spring.
Herbaceous peony plants do not need to be divided regularly, but they can be divided to produce new plants. This is a great way to create your own free peony plants to share with friends and neighbors.
While peonies do not multiply like some other plants sold as bulbs, peony plants do grow larger underground to develop a wide below-ground crown. The crown spreads wider over time and grows out more downward roots to soak up moisture and mineral nutrients. Peony plants can be divided after they have been in the garden for long enough that they’ve flowered for several seasons. At this point, the crown should have grown large enough to be divided up and replanted as multiple plants if propagation is desired.
Peonies are generally divided in autumn after the stems have been cut back close to the ground. The plants are divided by carefully digging up the entire plant (as much as possible), brushing off the dirt, and slicing up the crown into separate pieces. Peony roots are often quite brittle when dug up, so it is common to let the dug-up peony rest for a day or two to encourage the roots to go limp. Choose a shaded spot and put a cover the peony overnight to keep it from drying out.
Wash the peony root off with water prior to dividing it. Examine the crown and look carefully for “eyes”. Each piece of the crown should have 2-3 visible “eyes” (buds) on it, as well as at least one significant tuber root, or 2-3 smaller roots. Roots that have more than three eyes on their crown may flower in their second season, while roots with fewer eyes generally need to grow for 2-3 seasons to flower.
Use a sharp knife or garden spade to slice through the crown clump. The outer sections of the crown tend to have more eyes and supple young roots, while the center of older peony plants can be woody and rotted with few eyes. Discard the center of the old peony plant if it has deteriorated, and use only the fresh outer sections as divisions.
Peony plants generally do not like to be dug up and moved to a new location. While transplanting is not optimal, there are sometimes occasions where it simply must be done. Whether they are in the path of construction or planted in a spot where they don’t get enough sun, they can be moved (even though they don’t like it).
Try to transplant peonies in the fall or in the early spring. Avoid summer transplanting if possible, recognizing that sometimes peonies need to be “rescued” from construction sites or other areas where they may end up in the trash if not otherwise transplanted.
Take care to dig up peony plants as gently as possible. Young peony plants can most easily be dug up whole with the roots almost fully intact. Decades-old peonies, however, have seemingly-giant root systems. It is seriously hard to dig up an old established peony and keep it whole/intact. That said, the inner crown is likely deteriorating, and you can instead divide off pieces of the outer crown to transplant in other areas. But even if you’re sure you’ve got the whole thing out, don’t be surprised if you see a stem or two pop up in the old location in future years!
There are a number of plants that are wonderful companions to peonies in the garden. As a classic cottage garden plant, peonies pair well with other medium-tall border classics, such as:
There are also some shorter flowering perennials that work well when planted in front of peonies, including:
Here are some common questions about peony flowers.
Peony plants produce the most blooms when the plant has been in the ground for at least 3 years, when it is planted in a full sun location (at least 6-8 hours of direct sunlight per day), and when the plant has adequate amounts of water and mineral nutrients.
To bloom at their best, peony plants should not be planted too deep. Peony plants where the crown is below more than 2″ of soil may have trouble blooming. Ideally, the eye buds should be only about an inch below the soil surface.
Particularly old peony plants may have a crown that is disintegrating in the center. These peony plants often bloom better if dug up and divided, as described earlier in this article.
Peony plants that are fertilized with high-nitrogen fertilizer (like lawn fertilizer or evergreen fertilizer) may grow lots of foliage every year but very few, small flowers. Stop feeding these plants with high-nitrogen fertilizers, and choose a balanced organic compost or recommended peony fertilizer instead.
Coffee grounds can provide nitrogen to plants, and can be re-used in the flower garden if composted first. Coffee grounds are much higher in nitrogen than they are in phosphorus or other important plant nutrients. Add your fresh coffee grounds to your leaf mold compost to put them to good use and create a balanced fertilizer that won’t create an oversupply of nitrogen (and the accompanying tiny blossoms).
Peonies can be planted in pots, but they do need to be planted in large pots to do well. Choose a very large planter, such as a half whiskey barrel planter. Try not to plant peonies in containers smaller than 10 gallons. Ensure the container has good drainage, and be sure to water the potted peony regularly. Potted peonies should be brought to a cool, protected spot like a garage in the winter, where temperatures are cool enough for dormancy but not harsh enough to kill the above-ground roots.
Peony flowers do attract ants. The ants are attracted to the sweet nectar inside the flower buds, and regularly climb the stems to collect the nectar from the peony flowers. While the ants are somewhat irritating (especially when they appear in a cut flower bouquet), they do not harm the peony flowers during their nectar collecting antics.
The best smelling peony flowers are generally fragrant pink-blossomed peonies. Here are some of the best smelling peony varieties:
Peony plants bloom only once per year, generally in the late spring or early summer.
Peonies are the perfect old-fashioned garden flower. These gorgeous blooms have been beloved for centuries.