Peony plants offer big, fluffy, fragrant flowers in a wide range of colors, forms and sizes. These resilient, long-lived perennial bushes have a history of popularity as a garden plant.

On this page: Peony Basics | Planting Peonies | Peony Care & Pruning | Peony Pictures | Landscape Design Tips

Peony Basics

Paeonia lactiflora. Photo by: PaylessImages / 123RF.

Zones:

There are garden-worthy peony varieties for Zones 2 to 8.

Types:

There are three types of peonies: herbaceous (bush), tree and Itoh (intersectional) peonies. Compare them in detail here: Types of Peonies.

Height/Spread:

Herbaceous and Itoh varieties grow 1 to 3 feet tall, with a similar spread, while a mature tree peony can reach 4 to 7 feet tall and 4 to 5 feet wide.

Exposure:

Most peony plants are sun-lovers. “They require almost nothing but full sun and patience,” says Kathleen Gagan of Peony’s Envy in New Jersey. However, tree peonies prefer light shade during the heat of midday, which encourages the blossoms to last 10 to 14 days, rather than fading quickly (two to three days) in full sun. In China, parasols are enlisted to protect the delicate flowers from sun.

Bloom Time:

Peony season begins with shoots and leaves emerging, but the real show is when the peony flowers bloom in late spring. In most locations, they will bloom in April, May or June. Expect tree peonies to bloom first (around Mother’s Day), followed by herbaceous varieties (around Memorial Day) and then the intersectionals. If you include all three types in the garden—tree, herbaceous, intersectional—you can enjoy peony blooms for up to seven weeks.

Flower color:

Colors range from white, pink and red to coral, maroon and yellow. Many peony flowers change color as they open, so make sure to check them daily to appreciate these differences.

Fragrance:

Many peony flowers are fragrant. Their scents can differ between cultivars—some are scented sweetly of lemons, some have enticing citrus smells, and some are described as slightly spicy. Words like delicious and confectionary are often used to describe the smell of a peony flower. Decide how strong you want the scent—some are lightly scented, while others have a stronger fragrance. For example, Chinese tree peonies have a stronger fragrance than Japanese tree peonies.

Pests and diseases:

Fortunately, they are deer and rabbit resistant. Unfortunately, they are susceptible to botrytis blight, a fungus that can cause young peony shoots to rot, unsightly spots on leaves and prevent flower buds from developing. Learn more about issues that can arise in the Missouri Botanical Garden's guide to peony problems.

Planting Peonies

If planted well, herbaceous peonies will happily send up new shoots each spring for decades. Photo by: gutaper / 123RF.

When to plant:

Plant bareroot peonies in the fall (prior to the first frost) and they'll have the best chance of blooming the following spring. Spring planted peonies may not bloom for two years or more.

Where to plant:

Picking the right spot for your peony plant is essential to its success. If sited incorrectly, deep roots make transplanting mature plants difficult or impossible. Aside from plenty of sunlight and nutrient-rich soil, you’ll want to make sure they are planted in an area where you can enjoy their gorgeous flowers. Herbaceous and intersectional varieties should be planted in a spot with at least five to six hours of full sun per day. However, plants that produce single and anemone flower forms may benefit from some afternoon sun protection. Furthermore, because they hate wet feet (roots standing in water), “a slope or raised bed is preferable to a very flat site,” says Kasha Furman of Cricket Hill Garden. And don’t forget to plan ahead and give tree peonies plenty of room—most grow to five by five feet in their 10th year.

Tip: The experts from the University of Michigan’s Peony Garden at the Nichols Arboretum recommend planting peonies far away from large trees and shrubs as they do not like to have root competition.

What type of soil is best for peonies?

Some gardeners have success growing them in their native soil, but most experts recommend amending with organic matter before planting. Proper soil preparation will make it so you don’t have to fertilize for the first few years. No matter what, ensure that they have well-drained soil, as they will not do well with soggy roots.

Here are some tips for improving your soil:

  • Herbaceous varieties love potassium; a 5-10-10 slow release fertilizer is a good choice.
  • They are heavy feeders and prefer alkaline soil, which may require adding lime or wood ash. “The plant does not uptake the nutrients as well if it’s in an acid environment,” Furman explains.
  • Additional trace minerals (such as Azomite®) will inspire tree peonies to increase their flower size, bud count and ratio of double flowers, and to intensify flower color.

How deep to plant a peony:

The depth at which you plant your peony will depend on the type of peony and your climate.

Here are the planting depths for each type of peony:

  • Herbaceous: Position these with their “eyes” (next year’s buds) ½ inch (in warmer zones) to 2 inches (in cooler zones) below the soil surface.
  • Tree: Plant deeper than herbaceous types. Gagan suggests digging a hole 2 feet deep and 1 foot wide (after amending the soil with organic matter). Position with the graft 4 to 6 inches below ground level, so that the “nurse” herbaceous peony rootstock will die away.
  • Intersectional: Plant them just below the soil surface, 1/2 inch deep in warm zones, 1.5 inches in cooler zones.

Can they be grown in a pot?

Peonies are happiest in the garden, but can be grown in pots if given the proper attention. Select a large container with plenty of drainage holes. In colder areas, bring potted peony plants in for the winter to protect them from freezing temperatures; plants in containers are more susceptible to frost damage. Additionally, you will need to water more frequently during the growing season, as containers dry out quickly.

Peony Care & Pruning

Herbaceous and intersectional peonies should be cut back in the fall. Photo by: photowind / Shutterstock.com.

Should I prune my peony?

Unlike roses, peony bushes do not require precise pruning to thrive. Often pruning is only necessary in the event of damage or disease. Both herbaceous and intersectional types should be cut back at the end of the growing season. Cut your herbaceous peonies all the way to the ground, but leave 4 to 6 inches of stem on your intersectionals.

For tree peonies, a dense snarl of branches can lead to doom. After five years, remove suckers from the center of the shrub to thin out growth and promote better air circulation. Do not cut back tree peonies until they are well established—they are slow growing, so every inch is precious. Pruning during the first two to three years will just hinder their progress and slight you on next year’s display. When pruning tree peonies, take care not to cut the woody stems—they bloom on old wood.

Disbudding peonies:

If you want large flowers, remove the side-buds that develop near the base of each terminal bud. However, if you want to prolong the blooming season, leave the side-buds alone (they will bloom later than the terminal buds).

Can I divide my peony?

Peonies do not need regular division for successful blooming. However, if you’d like to have more, you can divide your mature plants as a form of propagation. The best time for dividing is in the fall when the plant is nearing dormancy. Roots cut into pieces with 3-5 eyes have the best chance of success. Learn more about dividing peonies.

Do peonies require complex staking?

Many peonies should be staked to support heavy blooms, especially if you live in a rainy climate. Herbaceous varieties can be supported with a peony ring, while tree peonies are more suited for the use of bamboo stakes and natural twine. If this sounds like too much hassle, there are many varieties that feature strong stems that don’t require staking.

How often should I water my peony?

They are not overly thirsty plants—in fact, overwatering can lead to problems. Give your peony bush excellent drainage and begin watering in spring if you go more than two weeks without rain. Then, provide weekly, deep watering throughout the dry summer months (one inch at each watering). Continue watering after flowering to ensure vigorous plants the following year. There is no need to water once they have gone dormant.

Should I mulch?

In very cold climates, they may benefit from a loose winter mulching with organic matter such as pine needles or shredded bark. Keep mulch a few inches away from the base of the plant. Remove the mulch in spring to allow new growth at the soil surface. For tree peonies especially, winter protection with burlap and a 3 to 4 inch layer of mulch (pulled aside in the spring) is wise in Zone 4 and colder parts of Zone 5.

Why didn't my peony bloom?

Many gardeners have difficulty understanding why their peonies don’t bloom. Here are the most common reasons:

  • They are planted too deeply
  • There isn’t enough sunlight
  • Your soil is heavy on nitrogen
  • The plants are still young

Ants:

Peony buds secrete a sweet nectar that attracts ants. The ants do not hurt the plant and they aren’t required for the blooms to open. If cutting peony flowers to take indoors, gently rinse the blossoms in a bucket of water to get rid of the ants.

Leaf curl:

When a peony's leaves curl it is a sign of stress, caused by lack of water, a virus or unusual weather conditions. Many plants recover from leaf curl if the issue is corrected and go on to bloom normally.

Peony Pictures

Swipe to view slides

Photo by: Willard & May.

‘Sarah Bernhardt’ - Buy now on Amazon

This late-blooming peony is a classic with huge, fragrant, rose-pink double flowers. It can grow to three feet tall, is excellent for cutting and has a reputation for blooming reliably. Grow them amongst other perennials and shrubs or use as a background plant for spring blooming bulbs.

Zones 3-8

Type: Herbaceous

Photo by: Irina Vertuzaeva / Shutterstock.com.

‘Coral Charm’ - Buy now on Amazon

The deep coral buds that transition to coral-peach blossoms earned this early-bloomer a Gold Medal from the American Peony Society. It is a vigorous grower with semidouble flowers that does well in northern and southern zones. Looks wonderful when combined with shades of yellow, gold or blue.

Zones 3-8

Type: Herbaceous

Photo by: Easy to Grow Bulbs.

‘Karl Rosenfield’ - Buy now on Amazon

Expect this old-fashioned hybrid peony to bloom mid-to-late season. Its large, wine-red double flowers have a sweet fragrance, wonderful both in the garden and as a cut flower. The 8-inch flowers can last up to 6 weeks, much longer than other red types.

Zones 3-8

Type: Herbaceous

Photo by: Nikolay Kurzenko / Shutterstock.com.

‘Festiva Maxima’ - Buy now on Amazon

Deep crimson dappling makes this white peony truly special. It’s an heirloom variety with large, double flowers and a rich scent. Popular for cutting gardens and borders alike, ‘Festiva Maxima’ is an ideal choice for adding elegance.

Zones 3-8

Type: Herbaceous

Photo by: Ngoc Minh Ngo

‘Pink Hawaiian Coral’ - Buy now on Amazon

This delicious coral-pink introduction from Roy Klehm features rose-shaped semidouble flowers with rounded petals and a center clutch of dainty yellow stamens and cream-colored carpels. Beautiful even as flowers fade to apricot then pale yellow. Fragrant and great for bouquets. Winner of the APS Gold Medal in 2000 and Award of Landscape Merit in 2009.

Zones 2-8

Type: Herbaceous

Photo by: Ngoc Minh Ngo

‘Red Charm’ - Buy now on Amazon

A classic peony, introduced in 1944 by Lyman Glasscock, and still one of the best reds. The flower form is known as a “bomb,” with one or two rows of flat outer petals encircling a tight foosball of curly petals. Amy Hall calls the flower “awe inspiring.” Early and long flowering, ‘Red Charm’ is heat tolerant and has sturdy stems. An ideal peony for the South. APS Gold Medal winner in 1956.

Zones 3-8

Type: Herbaceous

Photo by: Ngoc Minh Ngo

‘Paula Fay’ - Buy now on Amazon

“Stunning!” says Amy Hall about this vivid flower, its shocking-pink petals glowing like neon when the sun shines through them. An oldie but goodie, ‘Paula Fay’ was introduced by Orville Fay in 1968 and won the APS Gold Medal in 1988. Early, fragrant, floriferous, and sturdy—a good choice for southern gardens.

Zones 2-8

Type: Herbaceous

Photo by: Ngoc Minh Ngo

‘Hephestos’

Named for the god of fire by breeder Nassos Daphnis, a Greek-American artist who became a highly respected tree peony hybridizer. Semi-double flower form, with deep red, ruffled, velvety petals. The tall stems hold blooms well above foliage, but be sure to protect the plant from strong winds. Roy Klehm calls this variety “luscious.” APS Gold Medal winner in 2009.

Zones 4-8

Type: Tree

Photo by: Ngoc Minh Ngo

‘High Noon’ - Buy now on Amazon

A cultivar of Paeonia suffruticosa with huge 5- to 10-inch-wide vibrant yellow flowers that look like roses, this peony is marked by central red flares and is scented sweetly of lemons. Floriferous from late spring to early summer and can rebloom in late summer. Forms a handsome shrub 5 feet tall and wide, with foliage that turns purplish green-bronze in autumn. APS Gold Medal winner in 1989.

Zones 4-8

Type: Tree

Photo by: Ngoc Minh Ngo

‘Marchioness’

Klehm’s Song Sparrow catalog describes the exceptional coloring of this fragrant tree peony as having pearly-mauve to peachy-yellow petals suffused with rose, touched by raspberry flares, surrounding a circlet of golden stamens. A heavy bloomer, each singleform flower is 6 inches across. Vigorous and graceful, it creates a sturdy 3-foot-tall rounded shrub. From A.P. Saunders, introduced in 1942.

Zones 4-8

Type: Tree

Photo by: Ngoc Minh Ngo

‘Bartzella’ - Buy now on Amazon

If you want a “wow” plant, Amy Hall says this is it. It has magnificent yellow blossoms 6 to 9 inches across, a lemony, spicy fragrance, semi-double to double flowers, and a mid- to late-season bloom. ‘Bartzella’ can produce up to 80 flowers in a season. It’s gorgeous in the garden and in a vase, where flowers can last about a week. The triumph of 12 years of hybridizing by Roger Anderson. APS Gold Medal winner in 2006

Zones 4-8

Type: Itoh

Photo by: Ngoc Minh Ngo

‘First Arrival’

This is the earliest of the intersectional peonies to bloom, hence the name. Has pinkish lavender silky petals with red flares and semi-double to double flowers 6 to 8 inches across. As flowers open they become lighter in color. Over the years as plants mature the flowers become more double. The plant forms a clump 2 to 3 feet tall and wide crowned by up to 50 blossoms.

Zones 4-8

Type: Itoh

Landscape Design Tips

  • Plant them in mixed borders for added substance and color
  • Use as a low, informal hedge
  • Plant alongside Shasta daisies, flax, and bearded iris
  • Flank a walkway or steps with dwarf tree peonies or herbaceous peonies
  • Peonies also make excellent cut flowers

Last updated: September 5, 2018

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