1142 Paeonia lactifloraCommon Names: Chinese peony, common garden peony, hybrid peony Family: Paeoniaceae (peony Family)
The common garden, or Chinese, peony is a clump forming herbaceous perennial with erect stems that are mottled with red. The plant gets about 20-30 in (60–75 cm) tall, and the compound leaves 8-12 in (20–30 cm) long. Peonies have thickened, tuberous roots. The dark green leaves are made up of nine elliptic leaflets with irregular, bumpy margins. The leaves often turn shades of rust and orange in autumn. The bowl shaped flowers are 3-5 in (8–12 cm) across, with 8-10 white, pink, or crimson petals and conspicuous yellow stamens. There usually are several flowers per stem, and stems may be branched. Flowers of most cultivars are very fragrant, sometimes overwhelmingly so. The fruit is itself attractive, made up of horizontally spreading follicles that spit at maturity revealing colorful seeds.
You aren’t likely to find the original species, Paeonia lactiflora, easily. Instead there many hybrids and selections to choose from. Gardeners in China, Japan, Europe and the U.S. have been selecting ornamental peonies for centuries. The American Peony Society recognizes over 8000 named cultivars. Flower colors include white, pink, purple, and red. Many have flowers with double the number of petals.
The original wild species, Chinese peony (Paeonia lactiflora), is native to central Asia, from eastern Siberia through Mongolia to northern China.
CultureLight: Grow garden peonies in full sun to partial shade. Provide shade from midday sun in warmer climates. Moisture: Peonies like a fertile, moist soil, but it must be very well drained. They require abundant water during the early part of the growing season, and should be fertilized each spring. Peonies are tolerant of calcareous soils. Hardiness: USDA Zones 4 - 8. The garden peony is an herbaceous perennial that will die to the ground in winter and return in spring. They require cold weather, going dormant through the winter and need a certain number of “chilling hours” below 40°F (4.4°C) (usually about 60 days) before they will emerge and flower again. There are some varieties of peony that perform satisfactorily in zone 8A, but most are best suited for zones 5-7. Select early flowering varieties in warmer climates so they can complete flowering before it gets too hot and humid and they suffer from fungal diseases. Cover with mulch in winter where snow cover is minimal and temperatures are expected to fall below -4°F (-10°C). Propagation: Seeds can take up to 2-3 years to germinate, and of course, named cultivars cannot be expected to come true. A better way to propagate your peonies is to divide the tuberous roots and replant in winter. Plant the root cuttings so that the “eyes” are about 2 in (5 cm) deep. Planted too deep, your peonies might not bloom. You can also take cuttings from semi-ripe new growth in spring and root on a misting bed.
Peonies are low maintenance, long lived perennials (25-50 years is not uncommon) and are ideal for mixed shrub borders and beds, as well as within herbaceous plantings. They are beloved for their handsome foliage (which colors up in the fall) as much as their beautiful flowers and even the curious fruits which split open at maturity. The taller varieties, especially those with large flowers, may need support.
To use as cut flowers, pick just as the flowers are beginning to open and keep in a cool, dry spot for 24 hours; then trim a half inch (1 cm) off the stem before placing in water.
Peonies were used medicinally in the Far East and Europe as long ago as two thousand years. There were few ailments that one or another part of the peony was not thought to cure. Today extracts from peonies are being studied for their medicinal benefits.
Called the "queen of garden flowers", peonies have graced the world’s most beautiful gardens for centuries. They are among the most popular of all garden flowers. Peonies have been grown as ornamentals in China at least since the 7th century, introduced to European gardeners in the 1600s, and to Americans in the 1800s.
Paeonia lactiflora and its hybrids and selections are sometimes labeled P. japonica or P. albiflora. It is thought that many of today’s garden peonies originated from crosses between P. lactiflora and P. officinalis, called the common peony, originally from Europe. No doubt other Asian species have contributed their genes to the mix as well.
Peonies can make you sick if you eat them, but they make you smile if you just look at them.
Steve Christman 8/2/11; updated 12/6/12