Big, blousy, and beautiful, peonies are some of our most beloved garden plants! And despite their intricate and flamboyant appearance, they’re actually incredibly easy to grow! Adding an air of whimsy to your outdoor space with their fluffy texture and floral fragrance, we think every garden needs one!
So if you agree, our very easy guide to growing peonies will teach you everything you need to know about caring for “The King Of Flowers”!
What are Peonies?
Peonies are perennial flowering plants belonging to the genus Paeonia, a monotypic genus in the Paeoniaceae family. There are around 33 recognised peony species and a further 6,500 different hybrid varieties and cultivars!
Most peonies can be categorised either as tree peonies or herbaceous peonies, with the exception of a few intersectional varieties, known as Itoh peonies. They are some of the most popular plants amongst gardeners, botanists, and florists alike, and are grown the world over for their whimsical flowers and sweet scent.
Peonies have a sprawling natural territory, growing wild all throughout cool and temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere, including North America and the Mediterranean, and extending as far south as Morocco and Algeria, and as far east as Siberia and Japan.
Peonies are well known for their exceptionally long lifespan. A well-cared-for peony can live for decades. In fact, it’s not unusual for them to last for centuries! Some families even treat them as heirlooms, passing them down through the generations.
What do Peonies look like?
Peonies are best known for their showy flowers. They have a layered petal formation similar to roses, only larger and blousier, with some flowers reaching up to ten inches wide!
Peony flowers are available in a kaleidoscope of colours, ranging from snow whites to pastel pinks, bright reds to delicate peaches to sunshine yellows and everything in between. In fact, peony flowers are available in every colour but blue!
The beautiful, fragrant flowers adorn woody stems which are shrouded in dense sprays of emerald-green foliage. The height of each peony bush can vary greatly depending on the variety, with herbaceous peonies rarely exceeding a meter in height, tree peonies can grow several feet tall!
Peony flowers usually burst into bloom between late spring and early summer, depending on the variety and growing conditions, although some varieties have been developed to produce much earlier or later blooms than normal. Peonies have a relatively short bloom time of just a couple of weeks, but what they lack in longevity, they certainly make up for with their fascinating foliage!
Once peonies have finished blooming, the foliage remains a lush green until the autumn when it transforms to fiery oranges and deep maroons, creating an almost year-round spectacle even once the fleeting flowers have finished.
The History of Peony Plants
Peonies are ancient plants, with fossil evidence dating modern peony plants back to around 400o years ago. They were cultivated in the gardens of dynastic China from as early as 1000 BCE, although not for the beautiful blooms that we grow peonies for today, but for their medicinal properties and as food.
Peony seeds and roots were used for pain relief and to treat respiratory issues. The bark was stripped and used as a decongestant. Peony petals were infused into herbal teas or added as garnishes, a practice which continues to this day.
The ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius even wrote about his love for the sweet syrupy peony sap, claiming to eat it with everything!
It wasn’t until sometime during the 6th or 7th centuries that people began to grow ornamental peonies for the fabulous flowers alone! Chinese botanists dubbed peonies the “King of Flowers” because of their majestic beauty, and they quickly became associated with nobility, status, and the Imperial family.
How did Peonies get Their Name?
There are two theories as to how the peony got its name, both taken from Greek mythology.
The first theory posits that the peony plant is named after Paeon, the revered physician of the Greek Gods. The legend tells that Paeon had used the sweet sap of a peony plant to cure one of his patients, which enraged Asklepios, the God of Medicine.
He became so jealous of Paeon’s medical successes that Zeus transformed Asklepios into a peony flower to protect Paeon from his wrath.
The second story tells of a young and mischievous nymph named Paeonia, whose beauty was so breathtaking that Apollo, the son of Zeus fell madly in love with her. Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love became jealous of Paeonia‘s beauty, so she transformed the nymph into a peony in a fit of rage.
What do Peony Plants Symbolise?
Peonies represent a whole host of different meanings amongst different cultures. In China, their association with nobility means they are often used to signify honour, power, and wealth. They are also used to celebrate significant events like the Lunar New Year.
In the Victorian Language of Flowers, peonies symbolised bashfulness, inspired by the story of the mischievous nymph. The Victorians even believed that roguish faeries would place a curse on anyone who dug up a peony!
More generally, peonies are thought to represent prosperity, good luck, and true love, so a bouquet of peonies is the perfect way to express positive emotions.
What do Peony colours symbolise?
Aside from the more general meanings associated with peonies, each flower colour also has its own unique symbolism.
White peony flowers are still used to symbolise bashfulness, so are often given by way of an apology.
Pink peonies are often used to represent a happy marriage, so they’re a popular choice for bridal bouquets. Pink peonies are also the flower used to celebrate 12th wedding anniversaries.
Like most red flowers, red peonies symbolise passion and romance, making them a great alternative to traditional roses for a valentines bouquet.
Yellow peonies represent positivity, good fortune, and new beginnings. They’re a great gift for someone starting a new job or moving into a new home.
Herbaceous peonies Vs. Tree peonies Vs. Itoh peonies
All 6,500 types of peonies can be categorised into one of three groups: Herbaceous peonies, tree peonies, or Itoh peonies.
Tree peonies are generally the biggest of all peonies, reaching anywhere between a meter and three meters tall. They bloom abundantly, often producing up to 100 large flowers per tree. Each flower can measure up to ten inches across.
The easiest way to recognise a tree peony is by its stems which remain above ground without foliage all through the winter, producing new peony buds and leaves in the spring.
Herbaceous peonies are smaller than tree peonies, rarely exceeding a meter in height and generally growing in a small bush-like formation. They produce fewer blooms than the tree peony, usually between 40 and 50 individual flower heads per plant. The flowers are slightly smaller than the tree peonies, at around six inches across.
In the winter, the whole body of the herbaceous peony dies right back to the ground leaving no visible stems. In early spring, new shoots will emerge.
Itoh peonies are an intersectional group that was created by Japanese horticulturist Toichi Itoh in 1948. Itoh created these hybrids to display the best qualities of both the herbaceous peony and the tree peony. They have compact growth habits, prolific blooms, and die back completely over winter.
Best Types of peony to grow in your garden
With over 6500 varieties on offer, choosing just one type to grow can be tricky! To help you narrow down your peony possibilities, we thought we’d share a few of our favourites.
The peony ‘Buckeye Belle’ is one of the most dramatic bloomers, with its swarthy burgundy petals making it one of the deepest-coloured peonies available. The golden anthers adorning its wine-red petals lend more than a touch of regality to this peony.
‘Charlie’s White‘ peony is a favourite of gardeners, florists, and even brides because of its pure ivory petals and stamens. The densely packed central florets resemble fluffy white pom-poms and are framed elegantly with larger tissue-like petals.
The Peony ‘Gessekai‘ is one for the minimalists amongst us. With bright white, frilly, upturned petals framing its delicate blonde central stamen, the Gessekai is truly an understated beauty.
Peony ‘Impumon’ is a dramatic peony with fervent scarlet inflorescences that demands attention. Its upturned petals open in a lotus flower-like fashion to reveal bright golden centres.
Peony ‘Prairie Charm’ is certainly a charmer! With densely-packed, bright sunshine-yellow petals, this is one peony flower that will welcome plenty of positivity and joy to your garden.
You could be forgiven for mistaking the Peony ‘Raspberry Sundae’ for a watercolour painting with its gently transitioning yellow, peach, and pink-hued petals. Each petal has a lightly crimped border too, creating an irresistible texture.
The peony ‘Reine Hortense’ has some of the most voluptuous and blousy blooms of all. It offers huge petals with an almost fluffy texture that can transform in colour from creamy white to candy pink.
Peony ‘Hephestos‘ offers the most resplendent fuchsia-coloured blooms. The innermost corners of its petals are marked with a black flash and encircle opulent gold-coloured central disks.
Peony ‘Souvenir de Maxime Cornu’ features charming coral-coloured petals, each fringed with a rose-hued border. The petals are densely packed and lightly crinkled, giving a crepe paper-like texture.
Once you’ve settled on a peony variety to grow, it’s time to get planting! Here’s how to do it:
Where to Plant Peonies
It’s really important to pick your planting site carefully since an established peony hates to be moved or disturbed once settled, so transplanting peonies to a new position, later on, is not recommended.
Select a spot that is sheltered from strong winds, as the large flowers can be pretty heavy, causing the boughs to break under their hefty weight if blown about too much.
You should also choose a relatively isolated position where your peony won’t have to compete with other trees or shrubs for sunlight and nutrients. Peony roots don’t like to be disturbed by nearby structures or other plants‘ root systems either.
When to Plant Peonies
Peonies are generally purchased either as bare root tubers or young potted plants. The best time to plant your peonies, (whether as tubers or young shrubs) is in the autumn when the days are still bright and before the ground freezes. They’ll need around six weeks to settle in before the first frost arrives.
How to Plant Peonies
The key thing to remember when planting peonies is not to plant them too deep! The peony root needs to be exposed to the cold soil temperature over winter to trigger dormancy and allow them to develop new flower buds in the spring. Peonies planted too deeply will struggle to flower.
If you’re growing peonies from tubers, plant them with the little sprouts pointing upwards, and make sure that the tip of the tallest sprout is no more than five centimetres below the soil’s surface. If you’re planting young potted peonies, dig a hole no deeper than the pot they came in.
Give each plant or tuber at least three feet of space in every direction to accommodate for their eventual spread. Water the soil thoroughly after planting. You’ll need a little patience at first since peonies don’t do a whole lot during their first year.
You should see a few small blooms in their second year, and by the third year, you’ll be handsomely rewarded with an abundant display of dazzling blooms!
How to grow peonies in containers
If you want to grow peonies in a container, choose one with plenty of drainage holes. Make sure the pot is sturdy enough to support a fully grown peony and wide and deep enough to accommodate the deep peony roots as they grow.
Like border-grown peonies, potted peonies also need to be planted close to the soil surface. Plant peonies in containers close to the surface of the potting mix, as you would in a border
How to Care for Peonies
This low-maintenance plant is suitable for gardeners of all levels of expertise and experience. Growing peonies really couldn’t be easier! Here’s our simple guide to growing your own peonies.
Peonies grow best in fertile and well-drained soil. Peony roots hate being waterlogged, so work plenty of organic material through the soil to aid with drainage and add extra nutrients.
Peonies will adapt to a range of soil types, and aren’t overly fussy about pH levels, although herbaceous peonies perform best when planted in slightly acidic soil.
Peonies bloom most prolifically in a full sun position, with at least six hours of direct sunshine each day, although there are some varieties which can tolerate partial shade and still produce plenty of peony blossoms. Too little sunlight increases the risk of fungal diseases and can stunt the blooms of the plant.
Peonies are a plant that performs best in slightly moist soil, provided its free draining. Aim to give your peony between one and two inches of water per week, weather depending. Don’t water your peonies over winter, as they are prone to rot.
Newly planted peonies will need slightly more water than mature peonies to help the roots establish, but they will become more drought tolerant as they age.
Peonies are fairly light feeders, especially if planted in fertile soil. An annual feed in early spring with bonemeal or a slow-release fertiliser should be enough to promote bountiful blooms throughout the growing season.
Peonies require very little pruning. After flowering has finished, simply cut back any dead, diseased, or overcrowded stems from tree peonies. Remove some of the oldest, woodiest stems every few years to encourage fresh new growth on your plant.
Herbaceous peonies don’t require any pruning at all, since their stems die back completely each winter.
Peonies are fully cold-hardy and can usually be left to their own devices over winter. Gardeners in very cold climates may want to give their peonies a little extra protection by mulching thinly around the base of the plant with shredded bark or pine needles. Just make sure the mulch isn’t too deep, as this will affect your peonies’ ability to flower next season!
Peony Pests and Diseases
Unfortunately, peonies are rather prone to fungal disease, but there are some steps you can take to help prevent them from taking hold.
Plant your peonies in a full sun position with well-drained soil to prevent root rot. Make sure each plant has plenty of space to allow for air circulation to the foliage. Always water your peonies at the base, not from above, since wet foliage is prime fungal territory.
Look out for signs of powdery mildew or other fungal problems on the stems and foliage. Remove and destroy any affected branches straight away to prevent the disease from spreading, but don’t throw the debris on the compost pile, since you may inadvertently spread the disease to other parts of your garden when you use the compost next year.
How to Grow Peonies from Seed?
It’s generally not recommended to grow peonies from seed, (unless you’re a gardener with the patience of a saint that is)! It can take up to five years for a peony grown from seed to produce flowers, although you may have some success collecting seeds from established plants.
Peonies produce beautiful star-shaped seed pods in late summer, capable of holding up to fifty seeds per pod! The seeds can be collected from the plant, dried, and stored until early autumn when they’re ready to be sown.
- Place the seeds in a tray filled with damp sand or vermiculite. Place the tray somewhere warm and cover it with a clear plastic bag.
- Keep the substrate lightly moist until germination occurs. This can take anywhere from one to three months.
- The seedlings then need to undergo a period of cold stratification, so either move them outside or place them inside a refrigerator until spring.
- The young peonies can then be planted outside, but don’t expect to see much new growth for several months or even years!
What do peonies smell like?
Peony flowers have a wonderful fragrance which is almost as irresistible as their flowers! It’s often likened to the floral perfume of roses or jasmines, with a slightly sweeter undertone.
Why are there ants on my peonies?
When your peonies bloom, you may notice lots of ants crawling all over the buds and flower heads. They flock to feast on the sweet nectar-like sap produced by the outer petals. Don’t panic, they won’t do you or your peony any harm, and in fact, they may even help to deter any predatory pests!
Do peonies make good cut flowers?
The sturdy stems and showy blooms make the peony plant an excellent choice for cut flowers, bouquets, and flower arrangements! Peonies have a cut flower lifespan of around five days, or even longer if they are cut just before the flower buds open.
Suitable for gardeners of all levels of expertise, peonies are effortless to maintain and exquisite to behold. But with so many stunning varieties to choose from, we wouldn’t blame you for packing your garden full to bursting with as many different peonies as possible! Pretty as a picture and perfectly perfumed, we think every garden needs a peony (or five!).