Herb to Know: Peony

| April/May 2010

  • Common garden peony flowers are smaller, at about 4 inches in diameter.
    Photo by Susan A. Roth
  • Tree peony blooms can be up to 8 inches across.
    Photo by Susan A. Roth

Paeonia spp.
• Varieties include common garden peony (P. lactiflora) and tree peony (P. suffruticosa)

P. lactiflora: Perennial, Zones 2-8
P. suffruticosa: Deciduous, Zones 4-8

The glorious peony is of the genus Paeonia, which is the only genus in its family, the Paeoniaceae. There are 30 to 40 species, native to Asia, southern Europe and western North America. Most are herbaceous, meaning they die down to the ground in winter. These include the common garden peony (P. lactiflora), also known as Chinese peony, and the many varieties that derive mostly from this species, including the old-fashioned, fragrant double peony. They are very hardy, many as far north as Zone 2, and long-lived. They generally reach 2 to 3 feet tall with flowers about 3 to 4 inches across.

Tree peonies are shrubs that branch at the top of slender cane-like stems, and they are primarily derivatives of P. suffruticosa. They drop their leaves in the fall, but the woody stems remain. They can grow to 7 feet and boast flowers that are 6 to 8 inches across. They are somewhat less hardy than herbaceous peonies, growing well to about Zone 4. Like the herbaceous peonies, there are now many named cultivars that expand the range of colors to include white, pink, red, purple, even pale yellow, in both single and double forms.

There also are hybrids that combine the virtues of both peony types. The American Peony Society ( www.americanpeonysociety.org ), which was established in 1903 and has officially registered international peony cultivars since 1974, keeps all the names straight.

Like most plants, peonies (especially P. officinalis) have an ancient history of medicinal use and a fount of stories and superstitions that surround them. Its roots were used in concoctions for afflictions of the head and nerves, as well as convulsions. Margaret Grieve in A Modern Herbal (Dover Publications, 1971) attributes the peony’s name to the physician Paeos, who treated the wounds of Pluto and other gods with it during the Trojan War. Necklaces of its seeds were charms against evil spirits and nightmares, according to John Gerard, author of the 1597 tome commonly known as Gerard’s Herbal. Peony is widely used in Traditional Chinese Medicine in a variety of herbal medicines for various ailments, including mood disorders, asthma and heart disease. The plant is generally not used in modern Western medicine, but scientists continue to study its effects and properties.

In China, peony is a symbol of honor and prosperity, but in the Victorian language of flowers, it came to mean anger, shame and bashfulness due to mischievous nymphs believed to hide in its petals.

Peonies are tough plants in most parts of the United States, adapting to a variety of conditions. The exceptions are some areas of the Deep South, because they need a cold winter dormancy period and can suffer in intense heat.

They need a well-drained site with at least six hours of sunlight to bloom well. Their large, fleshy roots are best planted in the fall, before the ground freezes, as they need to get established before they put on top growth. Don’t plant them beside large trees or shrubs, and keep grass out of the bed, as peonies are heavy feeders and will be less vigorous if they have to compete, so give them about 3 to 4 feet of space.

Water well after planting, then sparingly through the summer after the spring bloom period. The first year will see light flowering and smaller blooms, but that increases each year, with normal flowering in the third year. The herbaceous peonies may benefit from unobtrusive staking; for example, in the springtime, you can place a wire or string grid over the top of the peony (attached to stakes positioned around the shrub) and the new shoots will grow through the grid and its leaves will eventually hide it. Cut back the stems in late fall.

If the soil is well-prepared, a peony won’t need much fertilizer for its first few years. When you do fertilize in fall or spring, make it a low-nitrogen fertilizer, as too much nitrogen encourages floppy foliage growth at the expense of blooms.

Peonies can rot at the crown in damp weather if they’re not in a fast-draining soil with good air circulation. They are subject to fungal diseases that can turn the new shoots or buds black; use a fungicidal spray in the spring as they emerge, and remove all infected parts. Ants are drawn to their nectar, but the ants don’t harm the plants; contrary to popular belief, ants don’t help open the buds. If you want peony flowers indoors, cut the buds when they’re showing color but not open yet; then you can easily brush the ants off and they’ll open indoors in a few days (Click here for peony growing tips). 

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