Herbaceous Paeonies

13. May 2021 by Isabelle Van Groeningen
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Pfingstrosen - Paeonia 'Bowl of Beauty' © Isabelle Van Groeningen

Flagge Deutschland für deutsche Übersetzung – auf Deutsch lesen – One of the main symbols of early summer is the Peony (Paeonies). Since weeks I have been observing the attractive foliage as the plants slowly emerge in spring. The new shoots and leaves display many shades of copper, bronze and red. This young foliage complements tulips beautifully. You should look out now which tulips to plant near them this autumn as it will draw the eye to this beautiful feature in springtime. The dark red foliage will look good with Tulipa praestans ‘Fusilier’, followed by ‘Lasting Love’ or ‘Pieter de Leur’, whilst some are more coppery bronze coloured and will look great combined with Tulipa praestans ‘Shogun’ or ’Orange Emperor’ followed by ‘Ballerina’ or the gentler ’Cairo’.

Pfingstrosen - Paeonia -© Isabelle Van Groeningen

The stunning spring foliage, and autumn colour displayed by many, compensate for the short flowering time. Especially the species are likely to produce seeds, which in many species are dark blue or black inside a bright red casing. The often opulent, large flowers are a real eye catcher, and particularly the filled varieites often make excellent cut flowers and bear a wonderful scent. They are very long-lived and will flower for decades without interference. I have found them thriving in long abandoned gardens, where despite neglect, they still flourish. 

By now most plants are large enough to show signs of flower buds, whilst the first species peonies have started to flower.

For the impatient gardener, it is worth investigating the species peonies, as several of these flower particularly early, and all have a delightful, delicate charm, seldom found in the hybrids. Among the hybrids, there are some early, mid, and late-season flowering types, which, chosen carefully, will provide you with many weeks of joy from May into late June.

Species peonies

Paeonia tenuifolia

Paeonia tenuifolia & Paeonia tenuifolia austr.

This is the first one to open its round buds at the Garden Academy. Known to gardeners for over 400 years, this species originates from the Caucasus.  This drought-tolerant peony is one of the few that slowly spreads by underground tubers. Relatively small shiny red flowers sit atop finely feathered bright green foliage, reaching up to about 30cm in height. The emerging shoots are extremely attractive coppery red. A double form P. tenuifolia ‘Plena’, which flowers over a longer period, is occasionally offered for sale.

Paeonia mlokosewitschii

My absolute favourite, which is about to start flowering in our border. It originates form the Caucasus and is incredibly beautiful, but little-known. Because of its name? The flowers open to form an attractive cup-shape and are mostly soft, almost translucent pale yellow, though occasionally pink-flowered forms occur. In either case, the soft colours complement the handsome foliage perfectly. As the plant appears in early spring, it has handsome red shoots that soon unfurl to develop an attractive reddish hue. In autumn the seedpods once more catch your attention, with the colourful bracts and bright red seeds tucked inside the seedpods. The plant reaches 50-60cm in height.

Paeonia officinalis

The classic cottage garden peony has been part of our gardens for many centuries. There are various forms and colours on the market, but the species has single deep red flowers. A popular form is the filled P. officinalis ‘Flore-Pleno’. This plant is remarkably long-lived. They reach 50-60cm in height.

Paeonia lactiflora

Pfingstrosen - Paeonia lactiflora © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Paeonia lactiflora

The mother of most garden hybrids. This tall (70-90cm) flower occurs in northern China into Siberia, and westwards from Tibet into central Asia. The single flowers with a fat bunch of golden yellow stamens varies from white to shades of pink and appears in June.


As peonies have always been so desirable, there is a long history of hybridization worldwide. In Europe there are several long-established nurseries that produced numerous new cultivars. In France, Pivoines Rivière has been active since 1849, in the UK, Kelways was founded in 1851, in Germany it was the Gräfin von Zeppelin that started in 1926. Although new cultivars are constantly added to the list, it is some of the old classics that appeal the most.  

I used to favour the single flowers varieties, closely resembling the wild types. I always thought the large, filled blousy types were rather outdated, solely admired by elderly old ladies. Nowadays I catch myself looking at some of these big blousy ones, thinking how nice they are! It says something about my age, I fear. Here is a small selection:

White and cream singles:

‘Jan Van Leeuwen’ with a stiff upright habit, dark green foliage, gentle autumn colour, open single white flower and huge boss of stamens. this has always been a firm favourite as it stands well and does not need staking, even though it is quite tall. Similarly, ‘Claire de Lune’ with cream-coloured flowers, and ‘Crinkled White’ with pure white slightly wavy edges are ideal for the purists.  For windy sites, try ‘Shorty’ which will only grow 50cm tall. The advantage of these single flowers is that they are les likely to fall over. The more the flower is filled, the heavier it becomes and the more water can collect in amongst the petals. All this weight means the stems often have difficulty to support the flowerhead, especially during wet, windy weather. 

Pink and red singles

Pfingstrosen - Paeonia 'L'Etincellante' laub © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Paeonia ‘L’Etincellante’ laub

‘Mai Fleuri’ is, as its name indicates, an early hybrid, with pale salmon petals, reaching about 80cm.  ‘Dancing Butterflies’ is appropriately named with deep pink flatly opened flattering petals, and a modest yellow boss of stamens, whilst ‘Holbein’ has a more cup-shaped flower. ‘Flame’ is 90cm tall, and flowers a warm salmon pink, whilst the particularly tall ‘Scarlet O’hara’ (to 1,10m) is red, fading to deep pink as the flowers mature.

Semi-filled peonies

Pfingstrosen - Paeonia 'Bowl of Beauty' © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Paeonia ‘Bowl of Beauty’

‘Bowl of Beauty’ is a popular pink hybrid, with a row of pink petals that enclose a fluff of creamy stamen-like petals.  ‘Lemon Chiffon’ has an unusual pale lemon yellow colour, rarely found in the herbaceous peonies. ‘Paula Fay’ has a lovely open flower, with clear warm pink flouncy petals. ‘Bunker Hill’ is particularly late, with scented strong pink semi-filled flowers.

Filled peonies

White and cream

The one that converted me was ‘Duchesse de Nemours’ with her large white flowers, filled with what appears like a big pile of fluffy whipped cream. They make wonderful cutflowers and are deliciously scented. They benefit from some simple staking to keep their heavy heads upright. ‘Kelways Glorious’ is another old white variety with delicious rose-scent, and equally glorious is the early white, scented ‘Shirley Temple’.

Shades of pink and red

‘Bella Rosa’ and ‘Lady Alexandra Duff’ has palest pink, scented flowers, 90cm tall;

‘Sarah Bernhardt’ a particularly tall (1,10m) scented soft pink, a little darker is ‘Monsieur Jules Elie’ an early, 1m tall scented pink flower.  ‘Kansas’ and Karl Rosenfeld’ are deep pink, 1m and 90cm tall. ‘Inspecteur Lavergne’ is a classic late, dramatic deep dark red, with 90cm high stems.

The intersectional and Itoh hybrids

The Japanese Toichi Itoh managed to cross an herbaceous peony (P. lactiflora) with the shrubby P. lutea in the 1950’s. The cultivars that arose out these crosses are known as Itoh-peonies. The varieties that have been bred since by other plantbreeders are usually referred to as intersectional.

These F1 hybrids tend to be more robust and vigorous than their parents and have a more compact habit. They will grow into a shrub-like plant, that partially dies back in winter. They take several years to reach flowering stage and are still relatively expensive as the demand is high, the supply low, but they are well worth the investment and the wait.

Paeonia ‘Bartzella’ & Paeonia ‘Scarlet Heaven’

They come in a wide variety of colours, and often have extremely attractive foliage in spring as the leaves emerge. The pale-yellow flowered ‘Bratzella’ has nice bronze-red leaves, whilst the dramatically red cloured single ‘Scarlet Heaven’ has glossy bronze-brown new foliage. They are also quite unfussed about where they grow – mine has developed into a nice, small shrub that flowers well, even though it is growing in poorest of soils, in partial shade.

Planting and caring for peonies

Unless you have a large garden, with areas you can ignore at certain times of year, it is best to incorporate them with other, later-flowering perennials and grasses. I like to position them in the second, or even third row of a border, as they flower at a time of year when neighbouring perennials have not yet reached their full height. Phloxes, Asters and late grasses can then take over attention, and fill out the space.

Peonies are generally trouble-free garden plants. They like a deep fertile soil where their thick, fleshy roots can reach deep in search of water. Make sure to add compost or well-rotted manure if you garden on nutrient-poor sandy soils. As long as the plants look happy and flower well, there is no need to lift or divide them. Should you lift them, early autumn is the best time. There is still plenty of warmth in the soil for them to settle in before winter comes. Plant them with ample compost or well-rotted manure, and make sure the plant is put into the ground at the same depth as it was before. Planted too deep can be a reason why they do not flower.

The lack of flowers can be caused by fungal problems. A clear sign of this is when you notice small flowerbuds that do not develop. If this is the case, spread a collar of grit round the base of the plant in winter, so that the soil-borne fungus cannot splash onto the new shoots as they grow up.

Look out for them in weeks to come and remember to stick your nose in them to see which ones smell best!

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