|Ken Liberty planted his first peony at the age of 14, starting a hobby that’s grown for many years. “Watching a peony shoot come up in spring is like watching a rocket rise out of a silo in slow motion,” says Liberty, who lives in Bangor, Maine, and is president of the Peony Society of Maine. “The beauty of the flowers and variety of forms attract me. They’re also easy to grow and come up every year.”
Garden peonies (Paeonia lactiflora cultivars and hybrids) are herbaceous perennials with big, often perfumed, blooms in snow white to pink, magenta, crimson, lavender, salmon, primrose yellow, or even green. Besides the blowsy blossoms, peony foliage makes a handsome dark green backdrop for later blooming annual and perennial flowers. Some peony foliage develops reddish fall color, adding another season of interest.
Hardy in Zones 3-8, peonies are bushy plants, averaging 3 feet tall and 3 feet wide. They bloom 5-10 days in late spring and early summer, bearing 3- to 6-inch-diameter flowers in a handful of shapes. You can extend the peony season by choosing early, midseason, and late-blooming varieties from among the more than 1,000 named peonies that exist.
To make wise selections, it helps to know peonies’ many forms.
- Single: Rows of five or more big petals encircle a fertile center of seed-bearing yellow stamens.
- Japanese, including anemone: Five or more petals ring a showy cluster of small, sterile, petallike segments.
- Bomb: The blossom’s mounded center contains petals that are smaller than the outer petals, but have a similar color and texture.
- Double: Large outer petals surround frilly overlapped petals of the same color in this big, classic, roselike globe; stamens are hard to see or gone.
- Semidouble: While it has fewer inner petals than a double, the petals are fairly uniform; decorative, pollen-bearing, yellow stamens stand out against the petal color.
Using Peonies in the Landscape
Peonies are versatile, long-lived landscape plants used for low summer hedges and singly or grouped for a sumptuous focal point or accent in beds and borders.
“Mine are mostly massed in raised beds,” Liberty says of his Zone 4 garden. “I’ve seen people line walks or driveways with them, often repeating the same variety of peony.” About the only place these slow-growing plants won’t thrive is in containers.
“Peonies grow better in the ground because their tuberous roots can spread 1 to 2 feet beyond the plant,” he says. “You may have to use an ax to get old clumps out of the ground.”
When selecting peonies at a nursery, look for healthy plants with no signs of damage or disease. In the South, early-blooming single or Japanese types grow best. If you buy potted peonies, you can plant them anytime, but be patient because some may not bloom for at least a year or two. Bare-root peonies, ideally planted from September to mid-October, may take up to three years to flower.