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Gardening 101: Tree Peonies

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Gardening 101: Tree Peonies

June 5, 2020

Tree Peony, Paeonia suffruticosa: “Dinner Plate Flowers”

Every May I wait with baited breath for my great grandmother Renee’s peonies to bloom in my parents’ front garden, where they’ve been transplanted on Maine’s rocky coast. They mark the beginning of summer; usually, I just happen to be there for Memorial Day, and if not I inquire about the status daily over the phone. (This year, as I write, the buds are out in the rain, just about to burst.)

What I didn’t know is that there are four types of peonies: woodland, herbaceous, intersectional, and tree. (I’m fairly sure Grandma Renee’s are herbaceous.) Today we’re looking at tree peonies, woody perennials that bloom earlier in the spring, around April or May. They produce gigantic blooms, often the size of dinner plates, and—an added bonus—they’re resistant to deer (ours are not; we find tracks in the mornings). Here’s what you need to know about these hearty plants:

Photography by Alison Engstrom.

 Peony&#8\2\17;s Envy in New Jersey grows 700 different cultivars of peonies—including tree peonies, which grow in woodlands.
Above: Peony’s Envy in New Jersey grows 700 different cultivars of peonies—including tree peonies, which grow in woodlands.

Tree peonies, native to China, are distinguished by their thick, woody stems. The plants can grow to be 3 to 7 feet tall (hence the name “tree”peonies).

The Choraku &#8\2\20;Forever Happy&#8\2\2\1; variety has bubblegum-pink ruffly blooms.
Above: The Choraku “Forever Happy” variety has bubblegum-pink ruffly blooms.

During their bloom season, which lasts for about two weeks in April and May, plants can have more than 50 blooms at one time; the massive multi-layered flowers span eight to ten inches wide.

The Chun Hong Jiao Yan &#8\2\20;Glamorous Spring Pink&#8\2\2\1; variety, with a yellow center.
Above: The Chun Hong Jiao Yan “Glamorous Spring Pink” variety, with a yellow center.

For the 50 weeks of the year when they’re not in bloom, tree peonies add a structured, leafy element to the garden, with foliage that turns a deep gold and purple in fall.

Cong Zhong Zia &#8\2\20;Smiling In The Thickets&#8\2\2\1; wins the award for most charming name, and moodiest blooms.
Above: Cong Zhong Zia “Smiling In The Thickets” wins the award for most charming name, and moodiest blooms.

Cheat Sheet

  • Plant tree peonies in groupings according to bloom color for a striking, full display, or mix whites and pinks for variety.
  • For a larger-than-life arrangement, cut and display one stem—or a few—in a simple vase.
  • Don’t worry if your tree peony seems a bit lazy—they’re notoriously slow to grow.
Slightly smaller Feng Dan Bai &#8\2\20;White Phoenix.&#8\2\2\1;
Above: Slightly smaller Feng Dan Bai “White Phoenix.”

Keep It Alive

  • Tree peonies do best in USDA zones 4-9.
  • Plant in well-drained soil.
  • These plants can grow in part shade; ensure that they get 5-6 hours of sun each day.
&#8\2\20;Tri Color Blue Jade&#8\2\2\1; is a misnomer for Lan Yu San Cai: light cream petals are flushed with a pink hue.
Above: “Tri Color Blue Jade” is a misnomer for Lan Yu San Cai: light cream petals are flushed with a pink hue.
The extra-layered Louyang Hong &#8\2\20;Louyang Red.&#8\2\2\1;
Above: The extra-layered Louyang Hong “Louyang Red.”
A regal choice: Zi Jin He &#8\2\20;Purple Golden Lotus.&#8\2\2\1;
Above: A regal choice: Zi Jin He “Purple Golden Lotus.”
Xue Lian &#8\2\20;Purple Lotus&#8\2\2\1; at dusk.
Above: Xue Lian “Purple Lotus” at dusk.

For more about tree peonies, see Peony’s Envy. They also sell peonies for planting.

Tree peonies grow well in dappled sun.
Above: Tree peonies grow well in dappled sun.

For more flowering plants and their care, see our Gardening 101 posts:

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