Though a few species peonies may be found through specialists’ catalogs and seed exchanges, most garden peonies are hybrids. The basic types are herbaceous and tree peonies, both descended from Chinese species. A new third category, the intersectional hybrids, combines the best traits of herbaceous and tree types. All peonies are extremely long-lived plants of significant size; they provide choice cut flowers and are a mainstay of big perennial borders.
Plant peonies in fall, either as bare-root plants or from nursery containers. Ideally, the planting site for peonies should be deeply dug at least several days before planting. Work in plenty of compost, especially in heavy soil, and incorporate a high-phosphorus fertilizer; then allow the soil to settle before planting.
Peonies of all types can be grown in large (18–24-in.) containers. Replant every third autumn in the same or a slightly larger pot, replacing most of the soil when you do.
Deciduous shrubs. Slow growth to 2–6 ft. tall and eventually as wide, with handsomely divided blue-green to bronzy green leaves. Single to double flowers, typically very large (to 10–12 in. across), appear in spring. These peonies seldom show their full potential until they have spent several years in the garden, but the spectacular results are worth the wait.
Catalogs offer named varieties of Japanese origin in white and shades of pink, red, and purple. These are generally semidouble and display their flowers well. Some of the older European hybrids in pink and yellow are fully double, with flowers so heavy that they hang their heads. More recent hybrids come in yellow, copper, and a coral that approaches orange; all result from crosses of P. suffruticosa with P. delavayi and P. d. lutea. These bear semidouble blooms that face outward and upward.
Tree peonies require much less winter chill than herbaceous peonies. The large flowers are fragile and should be sheltered from strong winds. Snip off blooms when they fade. After leaf drop in fall, prune to remove dead wood and to control the height of mature plants; do this by removing about half the current season’s growth on the tallest branches that have bloomed, always making your cuts just above an outward-facing side branch. In coldest climates, protect from winter sun and wind with a burlap curtain.
Native to southern Europe and the Caucasus. Compact, leafy, aggressive, spreading by volunteer seedlin...
Himalayan native to 1 1/2 ft. high, spreading by rhizomes. Long-stalked, medium green, 2 1/2-in.-wide ...
Native from Vermont to Alabama, west to North Dakota, Wyoming, and New Mexico. Stout-stemmed plant to ...