Peonies have some of the largest, most impressive and delicate-looking perennial flowers around.
We’ve admired them for as long as we’ve grown them throughout history, and they’ve inspired countless works of art, including visual art and literature.
Peonies have formed a central part in decorations for hundreds of years, in weddings and celebrations, carrying the most heartfelt messages you can give to someone else in a bouquet or a gift.
Entire planting schemes have been designed around peonies in the past, not just for their spectacular flowers in nearly every color imaginable, but also their bold and unique foliage, which also helps set them apart.
Peonies are the perfect addition to any gardening scheme, whether you’re creating a more formal garden, a cottage garden, or even a garden which solely consists of container planting.
Here’s everything you need to know about peonies, from a brief look at their history, how to grow them, types of peonies, and cultivars you should definitely try at least once.
At A Glance: What You Should Know About Peonies
Where Do Peonies Come From?
Peonies are native to parts of Western North America, Europe, and Asia.
As you might imagine, this means there are lots of different types of peonies, and throughout the years we’ve been growing them, we’ve managed to create tons of varieties.
There’s some dispute as to how many species of plants are technically classed as peonies, anywhere from 25 to 40, so there’s many to choose from.
If you’re interested in learning more about the origin myths behind the peony, have a look at our Peony Flower Meaning And Symbolism article.
The Peony In History
One of the oldest recorded mentions of the peony comes from Ancient China, where one of the plant’s main uses was to flavor food, rather than its ornamental value.
The Chinese philosopher Confucius is reportedly one who mentions them, where he stated that he never ate anything without sauce made from peonies.
In the 6th and 7th century, medicinal peonies were hybridized to create some of the ornamental varieties we know today.
Peonies were also an imperial symbol during the Tang Dynasty, so they were showcased in the Imperial Palace Gardens, where they were named Sho Yo, which translates to most beautiful.
Somewhere before the 10th century, the Paeonia lactiflora was introduced into Japan, and this led to an explosion of new cultivars over time.
From the 15th century onward, the peony made its way into Europe, but it wasn’t until Paeonia lactiflora was introduced there in the 19th century that people really began to obsessively breed peonies for their ornamental value.
Peonies were grown for their medicinal uses long before ornamental peonies entered the picture.
Peonies are used in a variety of ways, one of which is making tea from a dried peony root. Different parts of the plant are used to treat different ailments, including gout, menstrual cramps, muscle cramps, migraines, and fever.
The blossoms are still used in culinary dishes, and they give off a lovely pink hue to boot, often used in jams, jellies and cocktails.
How To Recognize A Peony
The most obvious way to recognize a peony by one of its flowers. For most types of peony, they boast at least 5 outer petals in a vivid color, and huge stamens in the center of the bloom.
Some peonies form with few petals, others come in much more elaborate forms where the petals are ruffled and stacked on top of each other, forming huge bowl shapes. Some carry a heavy perfume, while others have no scent at all.
For further detail on the different types of peony flowers, please see the section below.
But what if a peony isn’t in flower? Usually, mature peonies will produce foliage ranging from 2 to 7 feet tall, and this is dictated by the type of peony.
The leaves also range in appearance, again depending on the type of peony you go for. Some have hairs on the underside of the leaves and are a rich, dark green which contrast well against the flowers.
Others are completely hairless, and feature glossy foliage.
Types of Peonies
There are three different categories of peonies: herbaceous peonies, tree peonies, and intersectional peonies, the last is a hybrid of the first two.
Known as Paeonia suffruticosa, tree peonies are shrubs (see also 30 Best Types of Shrubs to Grow in Your Yard) which range from 4 to 10 feet tall, and grow to 4 feet wide, so they need plenty of room.
Tree peonies lose their leaves during winter, and the stem that sits above ground doesn’t die off like other types.
This type is a notoriously slow-growing peony, but they put on some of the most fabulous displays possible.
The flowers themselves can measure up to 8 inches in diameter. Traditional tree peonies are usually found in shades of pink or white, but newer cultivars have expanded this range to include red, yellow, and purple.
If you want a very unusual tree peony, ‘Showanohokori’ produces fabulous magenta flowers which are grounded with streaks of black at each petal base. The entire flower is simply aglow, with the sun-yellow ‘eye’ at the center.
If you’d like a tree peony that will offset any purple flowers that you already have, ‘Souvenir de Maxime Cornu’ is the perfect choice. It features layers upon layers of delicate peach petals, which are tinted in pink at the ends.
While tree peonies provide structure to any garden, all year round, herbaceous peonies die back, leaving an empty space in the autumn, and appearing again the following spring.
Herbaceous peonies are also smaller than tree peonies, ranging from 2 to 4 feet tall. You’ll also hear them referred to as a bush peony.
Herbaceous peonies are often used in cut flower gardens, as they die back over winter with other popular choices such as dahlias (see also Dahlia Flower Meaning and Symbolism) and zinnias. These peonies come in many flower types, too, often in a range of colors.
Intersectional or Itoh Peonies
Intersectional or Itoh peonies are a cross between the herbaceous peony and the tree peony.
The name Itoh is in honor of Toichi Itoh, a Japanese doctor who created this hybrid, while trying to create a true yellow, double-flower herbaceous peony.
Itoh peonies feature the best out of both plants: the short woody stem of a tree peony, and the large flowers of a herbaceous peony, some of which can flower repeatedly.
Peony Flower Forms
While peonies can be categorized into their specific types, they can be narrowed down further by the form in which the flowers take.
Single Form Peonies
Single form peonies have fewer petals than other types of peonies. These lovely flowers have what’s called guard petals, which cluster around the central eye of the flower, and there’s either one or two rows of these.
Semi-Double Form Peonies
Semi-double peonies produce several rows of petals which crowd around the center of the flower, curving inward, but you can still see the ‘crown’ of the flower.
They can be confused with the double form peony, but the anthers of a semi-double flower can be seen when the flowers are at their best.
Double Form Peonies
Double-form peonies produce numerous rows of petals, which grow from the center of the flower. The crown is never visible, as it’s covered by clouds of petals.
Double form peonies produce humongous flowers, which is why they are a favorite among many cut flower gardeners and florists alike.
Bomb Form Peonies
If you fancy a flower which is even bigger than a double peony, the bomb peony is for you. It’s the largest type available, and produces no pollen.
Instead, it produces the most petals possible, and a globular cluster of petals which obscure the center.
Japanese Form Peonies
Japanese form peonies don’t necessarily come from Japan, but these peonies have been entrenched in such popularity in Japan that the name has stuck.
Japanese form peonies are easily set apart from the other type. The outer edge petals which ‘guard’ the center are a contrasting color to the middle petals.
Anemone Form Peonies
Anemone form petals are similar to Japanese peonies, and are a sort of subtype. They’re also referred to as a semi-double, as the shape is similar.
Anemone form peonies also have guard petals, but several rows, and the center which is usually a contrasting color does not produce anthers.
Peony Cultivars You Can Grow Yourself
Paeonia ‘All That Jazz’
‘All That Jazz’ is a fantastic Itoh peony which boasts double form flowers in striking color.
Each bloom is a pale pink, and every petal is beveled with a dark pink tinge, becoming darker at the center.
It’s a fairly new cultivar, and also features elongated leaves. It reaches 2.5 feet tall, and like most peonies, it needs full sun in order to thrive, with moist but freely draining soil.
Paeonia ‘Callies Memory’
‘Callies Memory’ features a more concentrated color in an Itoh peony, with apricot blooms, sometimes speckled with purple.
The flowers are a semi-double type, and as the peony matures, it produces more petals per bloom, and carries a sweet scent.
Paeonia lactiflora ‘Charles Burgess’
Perfect for adding a dramatic flair into any garden, ‘Charles Burgess’ produces fantastic blooms in almost a blood-red, vibrant crimson, deepening to burgundy or contrasting gold in the heart of the flower.
This peony may not feature as many petals as other types, being a Japanese single form peony, but the rich color definitely holds its own.
‘Charles Burgess’ thrives in both sun and partial shade, adding a plethora of color as a herbaceous perennial. Once mature, ‘Charles Burgess’ can reach up to 3 feet tall, and spreads about the same.
Paeonia ‘Claire de Lune’
If you’d like a peony with much more subtle color but a lot of structure, ‘Claire de Lune’ is a great choice.
It features pale yellow flowers, contrasting well against the rays of gold stamens and filaments in the center of each bloom.
It’s one of the earliest flowering peonies, making it perfect for those who simply cannot wait for their peonies to bloom.
This is a truly special variety, as this cultivar took eight years to develop, having been crossed over 500 times to get the perfect peony.
Paeonia ‘Coral Charm’
The perfect image of summer, ‘Coral Charm’ produces stacks of apricot, coral and salmon petals in a semi-double form.
As the gorgeous flowers of ‘Coral Charm’ mature, they start to turn orange, eventually settling into yellow, making for a perfect sunset display in your garden.
It’s also a very popular cut flower.
As it’s a herbaceous peony, it will die back in autumn, and come up again the following year.
‘Coral Charm’ reaches up to 2.7 feet tall, and spreads about the same.
Paeonia ‘Madame Lemoine’
‘Madame Lemoine’ has been an all round favorite for years, and it’s not difficult to see why. It produces brilliant-white flowers in a double form, the center of which are ruffled, with a hint of yellow, offsetting well against the dark foliage.
This lovely herbaceous peony also boasts a lovely fragrance, and when it’s mature, it’ll reach a maximum of 3 feet tall.
Paeonia ‘Purple Spider’
‘Purple Spider’ is heavily scented, and surprisingly shade-tolerant when it produces such rich purple flowers in a double form.
This herbaceous peony gets its name from the petaliod segments in the middle, which look a little spidery.
It’ll eventually reach an impressive height of 3.6 feet if given the right conditions, and it would make the perfect addition to any planting scheme, especially suited to adding color under large shrubs or trees.
Paeonia ‘Singing in the Rain’
‘Singing in the Rain’ is a striking Itoh peony which has an impressive blooming period. It will treat any garden to semi-double flowers in a vibrant pink, which fades to a pale yellow as the flowers mature.
These gorgeous blooms also feature a ray of golden yellow stamens at the heart of the flower.
The foliage really comes into its own in fall and spring, where it turns from a light green to a striking red.
Once mature, ‘Singing in the Rain’ will reach about 2.4 feet high.
Paeonia lactiflora ‘Alertie’
A beautifully fragrant herbaceous peony, ‘Alertie’ boasts early flowering, pale pink flowers in a double form, which deepens to a richer pink at the center.
Over time, it will reach 2.4 feet tall, making for an impressive display in any garden.
While the flower stems are considerably shorter than other peonies, it produces more flowers, and it’s fast becoming a favorite of cut flower enthusiasts.
Paeonia lactiflora ‘Duchess de Nemours’
A very old cultivar at more than 150 years old, ‘Duchess de Nemours’ has remained a firm favorite. It was created in 1856 by Calot.
‘Duchess de Nemours’ is a striking double flowered peony which comes in a pure white, often used for both funerals and weddings. It’s also highly scented, and works well as part of an arrangement.
‘Duchess de Nemours’ is also an award-winner, having won the AGM award from the Royal Horticultural Society.
How To Make Peonies Thrive
Where To Plant Peonies
Despite the delicate appearance of peonies, they are fairly hardy perennials, and produce some of the most fantastic flowers even when you largely leave them to their own devices.
While peonies can grow in partial shade, most peonies will absolutely thrive in full sun, and you’ll get the most flowers possible out of them.
Peonies can survive in most soil types, but the soil needs to be moist, and well-draining. So keep this in mind when you’re choosing somewhere to plant them.
You can plant them near trees and shrubs if you prefer, but then you will need to keep an eye on the moisture levels, and give the peonies a good soaking when required.
Peonies can also survive in pots, as long as you’re not going to keep them in pots over their lifetime, as they will quickly outgrow their container, and because water-retention is poor in a container, you’ll need to drench them regularly.
Plant peonies in either spring or autumn, making sure not to bury them too deep, as this will affect how well your peonies thrive.
Give them plenty of space where there will be a good amount of air circulation, to prevent pests or disease.
Peony Maintenance And Care
Peonies are very easy to care for once they are settled into their new home.
Some cultivars will need staking, as the weight of the flowers can cause them to droop, especially on the larger-flowered varieties.
You should also remove any flowers as soon as they start to wilt. This will help prevent disease, provide you with cut flowers for your home, and it will also encourage more flowers to form.
If you have herbaceous peonies, you should cut them back to the ground in fall to promote next year’s growth.
You don’t have to do this with tree peonies. Simply take off the spent seed heads, but leave the foliage to die back by itself.
Don’t be tempted to cut back tree peonies hard, as some tree peonies are actually grafted onto herbaceous peonies.
Diseases and Pests To Watch Out For
Peonies are, unfortunately, not immune to pests and diseases. The faster you spot them, the quicker they are to treat, and the healthier your peonies will remain.
Diseases To Look Out For
The most common fungal diseases to watch out for are Botrytis blight and Phytophthora blight. You can recognize Botrytis blight by the gray mold spores which appear on the stems, leaves, and buds.
While it doesn’t kill the plant itself, it will kill off the peony flowers before they can bloom. Avoid watering from above, and always remove dead plant matter.
Phytophthora blight causes wet rot, usually in poor soil drainage, and too much moisture sitting on the plant itself.
Check the stem, and if it looks dark and leathery, you have a problem. You’ll need to remove any infected plant parts.
You may also notice powdery mildew, which forms as off-white powder settling on the leaves and buds. Any buds affected by mildew will probably misshapen.
Other diseases which affect peonies include leaf curl, peony ringspot virus, and Southern blight.
Pests To Look Out For
Though you’ll often spot ants marching along unopened flower buds, they don’t harm the peonies. The ants are attracted to the nectar the buds produce just before they start to open, that’s all.
The villains you do need to watch out for are scaled insects, thrips, and hoplia beetles. These are the most likely pests to do damage.
Hoplia beetles are more attracted to lighter-colored peonies. The adults chew holes in the flowers. You can recognize these beetles by their green bodies with brown heads. To get rid of them, pick them off the plant, and drop them into a bucket of dish soap.
Thrips appear in spring, and you can recognize them by the shrivelled and off-color plant parts they feed off. Thrips do have natural predators, so nature should take care of them.
It’s worth keeping in mind that most peonies are toxic to pets, and you should keep children away from them, just in case. Don’t try and eat peonies, or self-medicate with the ones in your garden.
If you want peonies for medicinal or culinary purposes, go to your local health shop instead.