Of all the gardening topics, plants, and blooms I share about on my various platforms, I get the most questions about Peonies! Everyone loves these delicate, yet robust blooms, but there seems to be a lot of questions about planting, growing and caring for them. Consider this your comprehensive guide to all things peony. I’ll explain how and when to plant peonies, how to care for peonies, and show you some of my favorite varieties. (Pictured below is my favorite variety in my yard, Coral Charm.)
Types of Peonies
There are 2 different groups: herbaceous and tree peonies. Herbaceous peonies are the type most home gardeners grow so that’s what we’re talking about here. They grow best in zones 3-8, come in lots of colors, shapes and sizes, but can be generally classified into a few categories. These different types of flowers look quite different, so if you like one type more than another, make sure you check out the variety you are purchasing! It’s also worth noting that some peonies smell AMAZING. Like the sweetest, most intoxicating rose, and other varieties smell like wet dog. No joke. So that might be something worth noting as well. If you’re looking to purchase peonies, you’ll want to be aware of both the variety and if scent is important to you, look for one that boasts a yummy smell on the tag. Personally, a great smell is just a bonus for me, I’m in it for the blooms.
Okay, so here is a basic breakdown of the different types of flowers you see on peonies. And honestly when you get into doubles and semi-doubles, they can all kind of look the same, but this will help give you an idea.
Single Peonies have a center stamen with those yellow pollen-baring anthers surrounded by 1 or 2 single rows of petals. They kind of look like wild roses. Think of these as the most basic peonies, almost like the structure of a daisy with petals surrounding the center. I’ve found these don’t do quite as well in terms of vase-life as those single petals tend to wilt a bit faster than some other varieties. Here’s an example of a single peony, this one shown above is the “White Wings” variety. (Photo Source)
Japanese and Anenome Peonies
Japanese or “Anenome” Peonies have a “fluffy” center. I’ll skip the super scientific explanation, but basically the stamens have been transformed into something resembling fluffy petals. Japanese and Anenome varieties are slightly different, but I’ll group them together for our purposes. Here’s an example from my yard. See that “fluffy” center, surrounded by rows of petals? Sometimes they are contrasting colors, like this one, and other times they will be solid colors. When they first open up like this they almost look like a teacup holding that center and eventually those pink petals open up completely and lay flat as you can see in that flower in the very back of this photo. This variety is “Bowl of Beauty.”
Double and Semi Double Peonies
My beloved Coral Charm is a good example of a semi-double. These flowers appear almost rose-like with multiple rows of petals, but as they continue to open up fully, they clearly display the anthers and stamen in the center of each bloom. Semi-Doubles look very similar to Doubles and both are especially gorgeous.
Double and Semi-Double Peonies are often confused and for our purposes here they look very similar. They’re the big, fluffy, gorgeous type that most people really like! Festiva Maxima is a popular Double Peony. I just posted this photo on instagram of my Memorial Day arrangements featuring these bright white beauties.
I especially love double peonies in bouquets. In this photo from some backyard blooms at my house, you can see them combined with my Japanese Peonies.
Bomb Double Peonies
Bomb Doubles are exactly what the name might make you think- there’s a fluffy ball-like center that sits on top of a bed of large petals.
When to Plant Peonies
This is the question I get most often, “I’m so confused! Do I plant them in the fall or in the spring??” Well the answer is, both.
So first you need to understand that peonies are tubers. You can think of them as funny looking bulbs- they look like weird skinny potatoes. That’s why you’ll see peony tubers sold in bags with the tulip bulbs in the fall. Tubers need a stage of cold and dormancy in order to grow. So if you purchase the plain tubers, or “bare root” plants, then I’ve found they do best when you plant them in the fall. Peonies are cold-hardy perennials, which means you can plant the tubers even if it’s going to frost, or even snow again! So if you don’t get them in the ground until after the first frost, or if you missed your window in the fall and wait until early spring when it’s still really cold, and even frosty out, that’s a-okay. You can definitely pop them in the ground in early spring still, but they will get a slower start and might take a year or two to really fully establish.
Now another way to buy peonies is from a nursery, where you’ll have an actual peony plant, already growing and established in a pot. If that’s the case then the tuber has already been planted and grown and your lovely plant is ready to be put in the ground, you will most likely find plants like this ready to go in the spring time. I have purchased many of my ready-to-go peony plants in the spring and during the summer from Costco! They’ve all done really well in my yard. If you happen to find a great plant in the summer or fall, you can certainly pop it in the ground then as well. Just remember that the first year you plant a peony it most likely will have few, or even no blooms. Take a few years to establish so be patient! Once they’re set and happy, they can live in the same spot for over 100 years.
Peony Growing Conditions
Peonies like a sunny location (think 5+ hours of sun) with well draining soil. They need to be watered, obviously, but they don’t love wet feet.
“Mine isn’t flowering, what’s wrong?” : Remember this: first year sleep, second year creep, third year leap. Peonies take time to establish, generally 3 years. You may just get a few flowers those first years, but they are worth the wait! For best results, don’t cut your flowers off in the first year. It will help your plant to be stronger and and store more nutrients for a better following year. After that, cut away! Just try to leave at least 2 sets of leaves remaining on stems you cut.
How to Care for Peonies
Staking : One problem people have with peonies is droopy flowers. On some varieties the stems and foliage are delicate and weak, and those huge heavy blooms fall right to the ground! For those varieties you’ll want to have a cage, or some sort of support to keep them upright. Other varieties won’t need anything.
Dead-heading: snip off spent blooms to keep your plant healthy, but don’t cut your plant back until late fall when you cut back other perennials. In an upcoming post, I’ll show you a great tip on how to extend the life of your blooms!
Hope that helps- happy planting!