One of the nicest early summer blooms in my perennial flower gardens are the peonies. This is an historically rich and easy-to-grow plant; one that deserves a home in every modern garden.
The name is said to be in memory of Paeon, the physician to the gods because he reputedly discovered the medicinal properties of the plant. Another sense of the antiquity of this plant is told by the reference to today’s singing of a hymn or paeon (a song of praise) – the paeon was originally a hymn to Apollo. There is also the reference to the Greek word “
However we source the name for this plant, we go backward in time quite a ways to find them in all the serious gardens of Greece and Rome. One old legend has it that one counted the blooms of all the peonies in the garden and if the resulting number were an odd number, then death would come to that house within the year.
Mind you, I’m told that most of the counting was done after the fact – to prove that the peony was right. Nobody counted ahead of time because they didn’t want to court the Prince of Death.
There are two distinct classes – (the Latin plant name is Paeonia) – P. lactiflora and P. suffruticosa. The P. lactiflora are the herbaceous forms – dying to the ground in the fall while P. suffruticosa are the so-called tree peonies that remain above the ground in all but the most extreme of climates.
A cross between the two has resulted in a new and incredibly beautiful hybrid sold under the name “Itoh” peony. (Named after the breeder.)
Regular Garden Peony
The herbaceous or Chinese plant (most of the family is native to temperate Asia, North West America, China, and Europe) are a long-lived plant.
Once planted, they can live for generations with no further care.
One of my favorites is one I received as a division from a local church-yard. It had been planted there about 90 years ago on the wedding day of a friend’s ancestor. Bright red, it still graces the front of the church as well as occupying a special spot in my own garden.
How To Grow
Plant in full sunshine and rich but well-drained soil and it quickly grew to flowering size.
The one thing I do for all my plants to ensure they are planted on rich soil, high in compost and organic matter. Because they are going to stay in one place for a very long time, they get the best soil I can provide for them.
Moving and Transplanting
I seldom move them about but this year because of the enlargement of my garden, I’m going to have to shift most of them.
When I do that this fall – they do better with a September move than early spring – I’ll dig them as carefully as I can because the large roots are brittle and break easily.
But yes, peonies can be transplanted in both the spring and the fall
I’ll take as much soil with them as I can and I’ll water them generously both before and after the move.
This way, I may only lose one season’s bloom; I’ve known some of these plants to sulk for several years after a move.
The Most Important Thing About Planting
The one thing I will do is ensure the growing tips or “eyes” are not buried more than 1/2 inch deep in the soil. Deeper than that and the plant will grow vigorously but never bloom.
The tree peonies prefer much the same conditions as their herbaceous cousins except they prefer a more alkaline soil.
Planting Tree Peonies
The graft on these plants should be buried at least 3 to 4 inches deep and in cold climates like my USDA zone 4 garden, they can be planted even deeper. Mine are probably 9 inches deep as I’m hoping they will move onto their own roots instead of the graft.
Overwintering Tree Peonies
Mine tend to die almost to the ground most cold winters but re-sprout and grow several feet tall as well as bloom in one season. See above for planting to achieve this.
Two Useful Tips
Here are two tips you should know: The flowers on many cultivars flop over so I straightened a wire coathanger and wrapped it around the plant about 2/3 of the way up the foliage. With the hooked ends adjusted to the right length, the wire holds the plant upright without the use of a stake. The wire is also invisible. In the fall, simply unhook the wire and clean up the foliage.
The second thing you should know is that the only serious disease you’ll likely to see is peony gray mould blight (a form of botrytis) which causes the flower buds to go soft, wilt and turn gray. The solution to this is good air circulation, plenty of sunshine, and good plant hygiene in removing spent flowers and stalks. If it persists, the use of a fungicide such as lime-sulphur will help control it.
And no, ants aren’t necessary for the blossoms to open; neither do they hurt the plant. They’re there because of the sweet sugar exuded by the blossom.
Sap Stops Peonies from Blooming
This is another old wive’s tale – don’t worry about it – and see above for ants who are attracted to the sugar.
Peony Changes Color
There are possibly several things happening here. If it’s the first year, maybe the tag from the nursery was wrong. 2) The other option is something called “reversion” and this happens (mostly with modern plants) that may have some instability in their genetics. We mostly see it in Hosta and a few other plants but it can happen in peonies as well. The color spontaneously changes to something else.
And sorry, it won’t change again back to the original color. Like the new color or remove it.
Peony Not Blooming After Transplanting
It will often take a peony several years to recover from a transplanting. As long as those “eyes” – the small red pointy things are only buried a half-inch to inch below the surface, you’ll be fine.
Some folks have asked about collecting the seeds. And the answer is yes, you can easily collect peony seed. Treat it like any other perennial seed (see articles on this site about germinating seed) but do understand that it takes several years to see a plant.
But having said that. The first year, the seed doesn’t produce leaves, only roots so you’ll think it is dead. It is only in the second year that it will start throwing up small leaves. Starting from seed is not for the impatient gardener.
Peony Leaves Going Black
This is normally botrytis.
Buds Not Opening
This too is normally botrytis
White Powder on Leaves
If you don’t have a baby running around, this is quite likely powdery mildew. Note advanced powdery mildew will turn the leaves black.