Peonies

It's hard to pick a favorite plant, but if pressed I'd have to go with peonies. I love all types of peonies - for their beautiful flowers, of course, but also their foliage, fragrance, endurance, and tough nature. To me they are such serious, powerful plants.

Chinese tree peonies

Here's what I'm currently growing of the many types of peonies in existence:

TREE PEONIES

Tree peonies have woody stems that do not die back in the winter. In the wild their distribution is limited to the mountains of China, where they have been appreciated and cultivated by humans for thousands of years. New varieties have also been developed (from the original Chinese stock) in Japan, the U.S., and Europe in more recent centuries. I currently have six Chinese varieties, four of the Paeonia suffruticosa type and one Paeonia rockii, plus two Japanese tree peonies. Paeonia suffruticosa is not an actual species, but an informal term for the type of cultivated tree peony we inherited from ancient China, which appear to be complex hybrids of many different wild species.

Tree peony 'Wu Jin Yao Hui'
As mountain plants, tree peonies appreciate excellent drainage. They also love rich soil and sunshine, although too much afternoon sun fades and ruins the flowers.They bloom towards the middle of peony season, before the lactifloras but after many species peonies. Early/mid-May is the typical time in southern Wisconsin. The Chinese varieties generally bloom about a week before most Japanese cultivars.

Suffruticosa tree peonies

  • Luoyang Hong (Luoyang Red) - a classic magenta-red peony which is planted in great quantity on the streets of the Chinese city of Luoyang.This is a big, happy, exuberant fellow who grows vigorously and blooms profusely. Foliage is very dense and of a nice mid-green color. Flowers are large and rose-shaped, with a mild peony-like musky fragrance.
Tree peony 'Luoyang Hong' (Red of Luoyang)

Fall color of tree peony 'Luoyang Hong'

  • Shan Hu Tai (Coral Terrace or Coral Altar) - a low, wide-growing double peony of a striking coral pink color with purple interior flares. A delicious sweet and spicy fragrance. Mid sage-green foliage. This one blooms slightly earlier than my other Chinese tree peonies, and is a real stunner in the garden.
Tree peony 'Shan Hu Tai'

  • Wu Jin Yao Hui (Shimmering Black Gold) - A Chinese tree peony, beautiful deep maroon-red color which is sometimes called "black". This one is not nearly as dark as some of the other "black" varieties, but is not quite so lethargic in its growth either. Fragrance is fairly strong, sweet with musky undertones. The petals have a lustrous, shining quality, and the stamens are a shimmery gold as well. The foliage is medium bluish-green, with reddish margins in spring that persist until bloom-time but fade as summer progresses. The flowers do have a tendency to "hide" under the foliage somewhat.
Tree peony 'Wu Jin Yao Hui'
New foliage of tree peony 'Wu Jin Yao Hui' is dark red in spring


  • Xiang Yu (Fragrant Jade) - This Chinese tree peony has very large (8-9 inch) double white rose-shaped flowers, with lovely red carpels and bright yellow stamens. The fragrance is intensely sweet and perfumes the entire yard. It's well-known as a precocious and prolific bloomer (blooming at a relatively young age for a tree peony). My very young 3-year old plant bloomed its first spring in my garden! That's almost unheard of with tree peonies. Typically they bloom when they are 5-7 years old.
    Tree peony 'Xiang Yu' - 8-year old plant in bloom

    The foliage is grayish green and the plant has a tall, willowy vase shape. The foliage is larger and more entire than most tree peonies, and is not as dense as some. I have to prune out excess foliage and shoots on most peonies, but have not had to do that with this one yet - it is naturally airy.
    Tree peony 'Xiang Yu' - flower on young plant

    The flowers on a young plant are single like the one above, but as the plant ages, the petal count increases as below. The plant holds its flowers for a very long time (for a tree peony!).
Tree peony 'Xiang Yu' - flowers on older plant
  • Yu Ji Yan Zhuang (Beauty Yu Ji's Red Dress / Dazzling Beauty) - a Chinese tree peony that is new to my garden. Has yet to bloom for me, but supposed to have fragrant reddish-pink blossoms and be a somewhat later blooming variety. 

  • Hana Kisoi (Floral Rivalry) - a Japanese tree peony with HUGE silvery pink blooms. This one is new in my garden, and so far the stems are weak and cannot hold up the heavy flowers. Like most Japanese peonies, no fragrance. Worth growing for the lovely pink flowers though.
  • Japanese Tree Peony 'Hana Kisoi'


  • Hinode Sekai (World of the Rising Sun) - another Japanese tree peony, this one a natural dwarf (only 2.5' tall!) with bright red blooms. I just planted this one this spring, and it had only one sad stem with a single bloom. It is supposed to be a profuse bloomer once it matures.  I do like the crimson color and was able to squeeze it into a small space. No fragrance of course.
    Japanese Tree Peony 'Hinode Sekai'

Rockii tree peony

  • Paeonia rockii 'Joseph Rock' (aka Rock's Variety) - this is supposedly grown from the seed of the original rockii peony discovered by Joseph Rock in a Tibetan lamasery in 1926. I'm not sure if this is true, but I did purchase the plant from Klehm's which is a reliable nursery. Rockii peonies have large white blooms with deep purple blotches at the base of the petals. They are tall, vigorous, cold-hardy, and have very fragrant blossoms. This peony bloomed its very first year in my garden (it was a larger specimen), and has been growing gangbusters since then - certainly a vigorous grower. it blooms a bit later than my other Chinese varieties - overlapping with my Japanese tree peonies in mid May.

Paeonia rockii 'Joseph Rock'

Spring foliage of Paeonia rockii 'Rock's Variety'


Links to previous posts about Tree Peonies:
2012 - 1st year of bloom for Xiang Yu
2012 - 1st year of bloom for Wu Jin Yao Hui 
2013 - 1st year of bloom for Luoyang Hong
2013 - 2nd year of bloom for Xiang Yu and Wu Jin Yao Hui
2014 - 3rd year of bloom for my tree peonies, first year for Rock's Variety

HERBACEOUS PEONIES


Herbaceous peonies have softer stems that die down to the ground in winter. This is an ancient plant whose range in the wild extends to all the temperate regions of the earth, including Europe, Asia, North America, and even North Africa. There are so many different types to grow!

LACTIFLORAS


The common garden peony, Paeonia lactiflora, grows wild in China and Siberia, and thousands of different cultivars have been selected of this beautiful, fragrant peony. This is the one planted in pretty much every northern garden in the world. Colors are basically limited to shades of magenta (not true red), pink, and white - but what beautiful colors these are! These generally bloom last of all peony types - late May to early June in my area.

  • Myrtle Gentry - a blush pink double with huge flowers and fantastic fragrance. Mid-late season bloomer.

Peony 'Myrtle Gentry'

  • Paul M. Wild - intense raspberry red, mid-late season bloomer. Fragrant but not astonishingly so.

Peony 'Paul M. Wild'

  • Vivid Rose - bright medium pink, incredibly full double. Blooms very late (mid June here).
Peony 'Vivid Rose'

There are also two lactiflora type peonies which came with the house. I'm guessing one of them might be 'Norma Volz' or something similar - a very fragrant, old-fashioned double with extremely pale, silvery pink petals. The other is a bright pink Japanese type with no fragrance.

HYBRID PEONIES


Peony breeders have created numerous herbaceous hybrids by crossing various species peonies and cultivars. Many in this group are not fragrant, but include a broader range of colors such as bright red, coral, yellow, and orange. There is also a broader range of foliage types, sizes, and bloom times, inherited from the species parents. Cultural requirements vary, but some will tolerate more shade than the lactifloras.

Shoots of peony 'Coral Sunset' emerging in early spring

  • Coral Sunset - a very tall double peony which starts out coral and slowly fades through salmon to cream. This photogenic cultivar is my favorite herbaceous peony. The color, flower form, overall plant habit - everything about it is just stunning. I have seen it described as "fragrant", but I detect no scent in my garden.

Peony 'Coral Sunset'

  • Little Red Gem - an extremely early blooming, diminutive peony (under two feet tall) with beautiful filigree foliage. It is a hybrid derived from the fernleaf species paeonia tenuifolia. The single flowers start out bright red and fade to a deep raspberry pink. Sometimes called a "rock garden" peony because of its small stature. A very early bloomer, typically blooms with the Chinese tree peonies (early May in my area). Only a faint whiff of fragrance.
Hybrid peony 'Little Red Gem'


Hybrid peony 'Little Red Gem' - spring foliage and buds



  • Soft Apricot Kisses - an early bloomer with pale apricot-pink blooms that I got from Klehm's. Blooms here right after the tree peonies, but well before the lactiflora peonies (mid-late May). Single flowers have soft darker pink streaks at the base. Has fantastic landscape habit. I saw it literally glowing with an ethereal luminescence across a plain when visiting a public garden one day, and just had to have one. Mine is newly planted; here is a picture of a mature plant from a public garden:


Hybrid peony 'Soft Apricot Kisses'

SPECIES PEONIES


Many of the species peonies are quite stunning themselves, and well worth growing in the garden. I currently have only two but would like to add more.

  • Paeonia anomala - a species from Central Asia which, unusual for a peony, is a woodland native that will grow in part shade, according to the reference books. It has highly divided, almost fernlike leaves, and flowers which range from white to pinkish mauve to bright magenta-red. This is one of the earliest of all peonies to bloom, typically even before fernleafs, and it is said to have decent fall color. The one I had actually had wider leaves than normal and deep-colored flowers. (The source I bought it from speculates that it may actually be a garden hybrid, due to the wider leaves.) It actually does not look very typical of p. anomala. This plant unfortunately languished in my garden for a few years and then disappeared - it may not have liked its semi-shady location as much as the books say.

Paeonia anomala (or possibly a hybrid of p. anomala with ?)


  • Paeonia mascula - this southern European species has single glowing magenta flowers and very chunky, large-textured foliage. It is said to be vaguely tolerant of partial shade, although I have mine in a pretty sunny spot. The flower color fades to pale pink with age. It is a small plant and not very fragrant. This one and paeonia veitchii are the earliest of all the peonies to bloom in my garden - late April most years. So far it has not been a very prolific bloomer - it may not like its spot very much.

Paeonia mascula

    Paeonia japonica
  • Paeonia japonica - the Japanese Woodland Peony is related to Paeonia obovata - some botanists consider them to be the same plant. It is a small peony (about 18" tall) with lovely cup-shaped single white flowers. It is one of the few peonies to prefer partial shade. My plant is still quite young but had exactly one lovely bloom in 2015 and 2016. 
 
  • Paeonia veitchii - this lovely species grows at high elevations in China. It forms a substantial mound of beautiful palmate foliage, reminiscent of a Japanese maple, scattered early in the season with drooping yet elegant pinkish-violet blooms. The foliage is highly divided, but not as narrow as paeonia tenuifolia. One of the earliest peonies to bloom - usually late April here. The blooms are very short-lived, but the foliage remains elegant looking all season.
Paeonia veitchii


Paeonia veitchii foliage, young plant in my garden

INTERSECTIONAL HYBRIDS


For many years, it was thought to be impossible to cross Tree peonies and Herbaceous peonies. But crosses were successfully made (with great difficulty) in the mid-20th century by Japanese peony enthusiast Toichi Itoh. The resulting plants are called "Intersectional Hybrids" and have gorgeous tree peony-like flowers and foliage, but herbaceous stems that die back in winter. They are hardy further north than regular tree peonies, have an extended bloom period (up to three weeks!), and an extended range of colors. Lots of exciting breeding is going on now in this group.
  • Bartzella - perhaps the most famous Intersectional, a vivacious yellow double with a delightful citrusy fragrance. It blooms profusely and rather late (early-mid June here).


  • Intersectional peony 'Bartzella'


Peony 'Bartzella' has sultry olive-bronze foliage in spring

The color changes to bright green by bloom time


I'd like to add more peonies to my garden, but I'm running out of room! I'm sure I'll squeeze some in somehow....

3 comments:

  1. Nice collection of peons, Rebecca! I have only Fernleaf hybrid peony 'Little Red Gem', I love its leaves. The photos are wonderful. the most I liked is Hybrid peony 'Soft Apricot Kisses'. Have a nice day!

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  2. Great article :-) Do you have any more photos of the autumn foliage? I am particularly interested in tree peonies (trying to choose one for my tiny garden). I know some have pretty autumn colouration but nurseries barely mention the foliage at all! Madness IMO since the foliage is gorgeous and often has attractive seasonal variations, while the flowers have such a brief moment of glory. Thanks again for a lovely piece, I'm looking forward to exploring the rest of your blog :-)

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    Replies
    1. Hi Sorrel, Luoyang Hong is the only tree peony that consistently has nice fall color. Some of the other tree peonies I have turn vaguely bronzey in *some* years, but Luoyang Hong has bright red foliage every fall. I think it varies a lot depending on variety, climatic conditions, and situation. All TPs look great year-round in my opinion, not just when flowering!

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