Peonies are a staple ingredient in perennial borders, and in cut flower arrangements, and we simply cannot get enough of their massive, romantic blooms, and sensual fragrance.
Although they have a short flowering period, peonies are exceptionally long-lived plants which require minimal care. They are very hardy and bloom beautifully in most Scottish gardens, preferring neutral to alkaline soil and a spot in full sun.
Types Of Peonies
Peony plants fall into one of three categories:
Herbaceous peonies are the most popular type of peonies. These compact plants grow masses of blooms each spring, before dying back to the ground in late autumn. New stems start to sprout in early spring to prepare for the next late spring bloom.
Common varieties of herbaceous peony:
- Paeonia lactiflora ‘Diana Parks Red’ (This is one of Tom’s favourites – it’s been in Tom’s garden for over 35 years and was in his dad’s before that)
- Paeonia lactiflora ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ (light pink, full double blooms)
- Paeonia lactiflora ‘Coral Charm’ (pink-orange, semi-double blooms)
- Paeonia lactiflora ‘Bowl of Beauty’ (pink & cream bicolor, Japanese-type blooms)
- Paeonia lactiflora ‘Duchesse de Nemours’ (white, full double blooms)
- Paeonia lactiflora ‘Coral Sunset’ (orange-pink, semi-double blooms)
- Paeonia lactiflora ‘Festiva Maxima’ (white with red flecks, full double blooms)
- Paeonia lactiflora ‘Shirley Temple’ (soft pink to white, full double blooms)
- Paeonia lactiflora ‘Dr. Alex Fleming’ (pink blooms)
Tree peonies are a type of peony which form a permanent, woody stem. While the more common herbaceous peonies have stems which die back to the ground every autumn, the tree peony is more like a hardy shrub. Woody stalks remain standing through winter and go on to flower again the next season.
Tree peonies are known for their large, fragrant flowers and delicate, fine foliage. The woody stalks allow for the tree peonies to produce huge flowers without the potential need for staking. The flowers on tree peonies also tend to last much longer than the flowers on herbaceous peonies.
Established tree peonies can grow to be larger than established herbaceous peonies, although they are much less tolerant of harsh environmental conditions than their herbaceous counterparts and generally require more annual maintenance.
- Paeonia suffruticosa ‘Renkaku’ (white blooms)
- Paeonia suffruticosa ‘Shimadaijin’ (purple blooms)
- Paeonia suffruticosa ‘Shima-Nishiki’ (red-white blooms)
- Paeonia suffruticosa ‘High Noon’ (yellow blooms)
- Paeonia suffruticosa ‘Koukamon’ (purple blooms)
Intersectional peonies, also called Itoh peonies (after Japanese breeder Dr. Toichi Itoh), are modern peony types bred as crosses between common herbaceous peonies and traditional, woody-type tree peonies.
Intersectional peonies were bred to have large, fragrant flowers and fine foliage, while also being tolerant to cold and keeping a compact growth habit.
Intersectional peonies tend to bloom a few weeks later than herbaceous peonies so adding some to your garden can help extend the peony season into early summer.
- Paeonia ‘Bartzella’ (yellow)
- Paeonia ‘Julia Rose’ (pink)
- Paeonia ‘Lollipop’ (yellow-red-purple)
- Paeonia ‘Scrumdiddlyumptious’ (pink)
- Plant peonies in full sun, in fertile soil, improved by digging in garden compost or well-rotted manure before planting. They do not like being moved so good preparation will pay dividends in the long run.
- They will grow well in a range of soils, including clay, as long as it does not get waterlogged in winter and dry out in summer. They do prefer alkaline soil slightly better than acidic.
- Give them space, as once established they make a large plant and will eventually need about a square metre of space.
- Bare-rooted plants are best planted in late autumn, giving them time to start forming roots before winter. Pot-grown plants are best planted in late spring.
- Dig a planting hole the same depth as the root ball and twice as wide.
- Ensure the bright red buds are covered with no more than 2.5cm of soil as deep planting reduces flowering.
- Water in to settle the soil and continue watering regularly, especially in dry weather, during the first summer. Established peonies are deep-rooted and after the first year should not need routine watering.
- Mulch with well-rotted organic matter to conserve moisture, but keep it off the crown so as not to bury it.
- Many peonies have very large flower heads so it is useful to support the stems by staking, either using wire hoops which are strong, or by using canes and strings.
- Peonies are fully hardy. The foliage dies back in late autumn and the plants remain dormant until spring. No winter protection is normally required.
- Apply a general-purpose fertiliser each year in spring.
Caring for older plants
Peonies are very long lived and steadily make large clumps. If flowering declines, rejuvenate plants by lifting and dividing in late autumn, but only if they are showing signs of decline. They may not flower for a year or two after lifting. To do it:
- Remove the foliage and lift the clump out of the ground with as many roots intact as possible.
- Gently remove or wash off the soil to expose the roots and growth buds.
- Using a sharp knife, remove sections of the crown, each with at least three dormant growth buds and some roots attached.
- Replant with the buds 2.5cm below soil level.
- Plants grown from divisions will be identical to the parent plant and should flower two years after dividing.
Lack of Flowering
In suitable conditions, peonies are generally trouble-free. Deep planting and a shady position, however, may result in a lack of flowers. In autumn, move the plant to a more suitable position and/or replant at a shallower depth (no more than 2.5cm of soil over the top of the buds). Remember, it can take a year or two to start flowering again after being moved.
Established plants are drought tolerant but prolonged periods of drought in spring can cause poor flower bud development or buds failing to open. Mulch around the base of the plant and water during extended periods of dry weather.
Ants may be found on flower buds, but they do not cause any damage.
Extending Peony Blooming in Your Garden
To extending peony blooming in your garden, the secret is to plant varieties that flower at different times within the approximate six week period of proficient blooming. Most are conveniently labeled as early, early-mid, mid, and late season so choose wisely and you could have a month and a half of the most fabulous peony blooms to enjoy.
Peony Flower Types
- Single – mostly cup-shaped with 1 or 2 rows of large incurving petals and a large central boss of fluffy yellow stamens.
- Semi-double – these have a similar appearance to single peonies but with 2 or 3 rows of petals.
- Double – large, rounded flowers with petals that are narrower, overlapping, and often ruffled. They fill the centres so you can hardly see the stamens.
- Anemone – single or semi-double blooms where the central stamens are replaced by narrow rippled petal-like flower structures.
- Bombe – one step away from a fully transformed double peony form. There is always an outer row of guard petals that surround an inner circle of fully transformed stamens into petals.
- Full double – have multiple rows of petals emerging from the crown of the flower, with the crown of the flower covered by petals.