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Guide to Growing Peonies

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

how to grow peonies

Story at-a-glance -

  • The peony does best when planted approximately six weeks before the first frost to trigger dormancy and set buds for the following spring; prepare the soil with organic compost and bone meal as the plants thrive on potassium but do not flower well with added nitrogen
  • The large fragrant blooms of the peony make them a favorite with gardeners; they are easy to plant and care for and often live 50 years or more with little care. The peony comes in almost every color except blue and thrives in hardiness zones 3 to 8
  • Although they flourish best in the garden, they may be grown in pots when they are able to winter in a sheltered area to avoid frost damage to the root system. The plants come in three varieties: Herbaceous are best known, the tree varieties have woody stems and intersectionals are a hybrid between the two
  • Peonies do not need pruning unless they are damaged; herbaceous plants may be cut to the ground at the end of the season, intersectional plants do best when 6 inches are left at the end of the season and tree plants should not be pruned or cut in the first three years as they grow slowly, and pruning may affect the following season's blooms

Flowers hold a special place in a gardener's heart as they bring a profusion of color, contrasting patterns and fragrances. Many have medicinal and culinary value as well. Working in the garden and appreciating your handiwork has physical and mental health benefits. Looking after plants gives you a sense of responsibility and keeps you connected with other living things.1

Additionally, gardening has proven to be a stress reliever,2 helping reduce irritability and headaches. In one study,3 participants found gardening significantly decreased stress as compared to those who were assigned to read. Gardens are also known to increase your property value, and fresh air may help increase test scores in students.4

One popular flower in the garden is the peony. With luxuriously large blooms, they make a wonderful addition to your table, a wedding bouquet or left to bloom in the garden. The rich, showy plants are easy to plant and care for, and are a true perennial long-lived plant, as many varieties will come back year after year for 50 years or more.5

History of the Peony

The peony has been cultivated for up to 4,000 years and is beloved for its exquisite flowers and abundant blooms.6 Depending on the variety, some flowers may grow to be 10 inches across.7 They were originally grown in Eastern gardens as an imperial symbol and quickly spread across Asia as different emperors moved their courts.

They reached Japan near the eighth century and were further hybridized. The herbaceous peony has been a part of ancient Greek mythology and the roots, bark, seed and flowers were all believed to have medicinal value. There are several stories of how the peony got its name.8

According to one story, it originated from the Greek name Paeon, a physician to the gods. He angered his teacher after extracting a milky substance from the root of a peony plant, curing Pluto. According to mythology, Paeon’s teacher, Asclepius, was so angered she threatened to kill Peon out of jealousy, but Zeus saved him by turning him into a beautiful flower, the peony.9

Another links the name back to a nymph whose beauty attracted the attention of Apollo. Currently there are nearly 40 species of peony plants and the Peony Society10 lists over 6,500 cultivars in their registry.11

The peony has different meanings in different cultures. As the official emblem of China, the flower plays a large role in holidays and traditions.12 It has a strong tie to royalty and honor in Eastern culture. In the Victorian age it was considered unlucky to dig up a peony and if you did, it was believed fairies would curse you.

The peony is the Indiana state flower, the 12th wedding anniversary flower,13 and is the most popular flower used in wedding bouquets.14 In the language of flowers, peonies represent honor, romance, elegance and abundance.15

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Peonies Offer a Wide Variety of Blooms, Color and Fragrance

Before choosing your peony plant for the garden, it's important to make decisions about the variety, color and fragrance in your plants. Peonies come in every color except blue.16 The genus is broken up into three groups: tree peonies, herbaceous peonies and intersectional peonies.17

The herbaceous plants are the most well-known and do best in hardiness zones 3 to 8. These peonies bloom in the late spring and early summer for approximately 10 days and grow up to 3 feet in a bushy mound with divided foliage that remains attractive throughout the summer.18

Tree peonies are woody perennial shrubs thriving in hardiness zones 4 to 9. Tree peonies bloom earlier in the season with large flowers. Since the stems are woody, they do not require staking as do some of the herbaceous plants to support the large, heavy blooms. Their deep green foliage turns bronze and purple throughout the fall months.19

Intersectional peonies are hybrids of herbaceous and tree peony plants. They may produce up to 50 or more large flowers on a sturdy short stem and generally bloom after herbaceous peonies for about four weeks.20 They are prized as cut flowers and come in a large array of yellow and gold colors not widely available in herbaceous varieties. The plants grow up to 2.5 feet and may spread 3 feet.

Most peony flowers are fragrant, but the scent will differ between cultivars. Some smell of lemons while others have a scent described as slightly spicy. Words like confectionery and delicious are also used to describe the scent of a peony flower.

Before choosing the variety of peony for your garden, decide how strong you want the scent and what type. For instance, Chinese tree peonies have a stronger fragrance than the Japanese tree peonies according to garden design.21

How to Plant Your Peonies

Peonies bloom from late spring to late summer, depending on the variety. If you plant multiple varieties, you may be able to enjoy their luscious flowers throughout the summer months. However, all varieties are best planted in the fall, approximately four to six weeks before the first freeze.

This allows the plant to establish a root system before the winter and gives you a greater potential for enjoying blooms in the spring. Peonies planted in the spring may not bloom for one to two years. Typically, you'll purchase peonies as a potted plant or as a bare-root packaged in peat moss or wood shavings. Look for healthy plants without spots or poor stems.22

When planted too closely, air flow is restricted increasing the potential for mold growth. As you are planting in the garden, give each plant enough space to grow without being crowded. As most grow to 3 feet in diameter, you'll want to allow a 4-foot range for each plant. However, tree peonies, which grow as big as 5 feet wide and 5 feet tall by their 10th year, will need even more space.23

Herbaceous peonies do best when they are planted close to the soil surface, 2 to 3 inches deep.24 This may seem counterintuitive to leave the roots close to the air, but the plants need to be chilled to attain dormancy and set buds for the spring. If you are growing peonies from bare root, start with a hole 2 feet deep and 2 feet across in a well-drained area of the garden.

Add organic material into the planting hole and 1 cup of bone meal, as growing peonies need phosphorus, but do not flower well with added nitrogen. Mound the soil in the center to a height just below the surface and set the root clump on top so the eyes of the plant face upward with 2 inches of root below the surface. Backfill and water thoroughly by sprinkling the area.25

Peonies do not like wet feet, or waterlogged roots. If you are growing peonies from a potted plant, prepare a large hole and amended with compost and bone meal. Loosen the root ball and position the plant at the same height it was in the nursery container. Backfill the hole and water the planting site.26

More Tips to Planting Peonies

There may be times when you'd like to transplant your peonies from one area of the garden to the other. This should be done carefully to avoid disturbing the roots any more than necessary. Transplanting peonies should also be done in the fall before the first frost.

You may choose to propagate plants by dividing the root clump and immediately replanting. After growing peonies for 10 years, the plant may become root bound and dividing the plant may help restore its vigor.

While herbaceous peonies enjoy a shallow planting, tree peonies need to be planted 4 to 6 inches deep and Intersectional Peonies may be planted just one-half to 1.5 inches deep depending on your climate.27 In warmer zones you’ll want to place the plant one-half inch deep in the soil, and in cooler climates they are planted 1.5 inches deep.

Although they may be planted in a pot, growing peonies is more successful when they are planted directly in the ground. If your only choice is a pot, be sure you give it the proper attention, select a container with drainage holes and bring it in during the winter months to reduce the potential for frost damage to the roots.28

Take Care With Sun and Soil for Beautiful Blooms

In addition to the soil amendments discussed above, it's important to note proper soil preparation often reduces the need for fertilization in the first couple of years. Herbaceous varieties need potassium to bloom and are heavy feeders. They prefer slightly alkaline soil, so adding lime or wood ash may help improve plant growth.

According to Garden Design,29 adding trace minerals such as azomite may inspire tree peonies to produce larger flower size, increased bud count and intensify flower color.

Peonies thrive in full sunlight. The minimum is six hours of sun each day, but a full day of sun is optimal. Without sufficient sunlight, your plants will bloom less, and the flowers will be smaller. Sunlight also helps to reduce the risk of fungal diseases, which plague the peony when they do not have enough air circulation.30

Peonies should also be sheltered from strong winds and planted well away from other trees and shrubs as they do not compete well for nutrients and water. When the soil is prepared well, most plants won't need a side dressing of compost until the second year to help them settle well and continue to bloom.

As the buds swell, they produce a sugary substance. This attracts ants that feed on the liquid. As soon as the buds begin to open, the ants often disappear as their food source is gone. Although some gardeners find the presence of ants distressing, they don't harm the plants, and some believe they help the bud to open properly by removing the sticky liquid.31

Unlike roses, peony bushes do not require pruning, and it is usually necessary only in the event of damage or disease. At the end of the growing season, the herbaceous peony and intersectional peony plants should be cut back. The herbaceous peony may be cut to the ground, but the intersectional plants do better when you leave 4 to 6 inches of stem.32

Tree peonies may require some pruning after the first five years of growth to allow for better air circulation. However, these are slow-growing plants and do not do well when they are pruned in the first three years of life as it hinders their progress and reduces the number of blooms.33

Cut and Store Your Peonies for a Special Occasion

The peony does well as a cut flower, often lasting longer than a week. For the best vase life, they should be harvested while they are in bud. You may get a better bloom and the flower may last longer on your table when you harvest the bud when it feels like a soft marshmallow in the morning.

Gently squeeze the flower bud for sponginess. If they're still hard, you may want to leave them on the stem to ripen longer.34 When cutting, use a set of sharp shears and leave at least two sets of leaves on the bush so the plant may continue to grow and store food over the summer.

Since most peonies flower for such a short time during the summer months, you may also cut stems to be stored for later use. Using a set of sharp shears, cut several stems, again leaving at least two leaves on the bush, and slip a bunch into a plastic bag with a few paper towels inside.

The towels will absorb the excess moisture and help prevent mold growth. Lay the flowers flat on a shelf or drawer in the produce area of your refrigerator.35 Check them every couple of days and discard any that show signs of mold or begin to rot. They may stay this way for up to three weeks in the refrigerator. Once you remove them, the flowers may look limp.

Recut the stems underwater in a warm bath with flower preservative. Let the stems sit in the warm water for several minutes and then move them to your flower vase with flower preservative. The flowers will open within 24 hours and the blooms will last a week on your table.36