ISSUE 21  |  City Mouse

Field Guide: Peony

May 27, 2014 6:30 PM

BY Amanda Gutterman

Peony; Paeonia: “The Mistress”

Peonies can be shrubs or they can be trees, and one of the only sad things about living in a warm climate is it’s difficult to grow either. A peony likes a nice freeze in the winter.

With its fluff of thin ribbon petals, a peony is as frivolous as it is majestic. Add a single stem to any everyday floral arrangement and people will believe you got it from a rock-star wedding florist in Williamsburg.

peony walkway helmingham hall suffolk englandAbove: Photograph by Kendra Wilson. For more of this garden, see Helmingham Hall in Suffolk: Shouldn’t Every Garden Have a Moat?

Long before the peony conquered Williamsburg, it stole other hearts. In 1903, the Qing Dynasty named it China’s national flower. This was not a risky choice; for centuries the peony has symbolized prosperity and fertility in Asian art. The practice of Feng Shui affirms the peony’s erotic potency.


Above: Photograph by Christine Chitnis for Gardenista. For more of this garden, see Boston’s Best-Kept Secret: Eva’s Organic Garden.

To spice up your love life, trim some pink peonies and place them in the southwest corner of your bedroom. But take heed: according to tradition, older couples with bedroom peonies  are inclined to stray toward youthful lovers.


Above: Peonies in the cooler, raised by organic flower grower Dancing Moon Farm in Hood River, Oregon. For more information and pricing, see Dancing Moon Farm.

Cheat Sheet:

  • Choose well; these perennials have extremely long lives and some thrive for more than 100 years.
  • Pairs well in the garden with companions like irises and roses.
  • Some of the most fragrant varieties are old peonies: Chester Gowdy (introduced in 1913); Duchesse de Nemours (1851), and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt (1932) are among our favorites.

Keep It Alive:

  • Peonies are jealous of their space and can have a hard time sharing. Don’t make them compete with trees or shrubs for  sunlight.
  • Perennial in growing zones 3, 7, and 8.
  • Wait to divide them until September, when temperatures start to cool.


Above: Photograph by Marie Viljoen.

And if you are lucky enough to have a tree peony blooming in your garden, do not try to move it. It hates that and to punish you may not bloom for several years after being transplanted. Take heart: it can live to be more than a hundred years old. It will bloom for your grandchildren.

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Above: Photograph by Marie Viljoen.

Shopping for peonies? One of our favorites is Coral Charm. And Polar Star, a Japanese peony introduced in the 1930s, is a favorite of bees. If you’re planning your spring garden, see the rest of our Field Guide posts for plant advice.