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Points to Ponder when Selecting Peonies

Peony bushThere is no flower more nostalgic than the big beautiful blossoms that cover herbaceous peony bushes in spring. They are fabulous in the garden, a vase, and bridal bouquets. Their colors, forms, and texture make them eye catchers in any situation and their foliage adds beauty to the border throughout almost all the gardening season. They require little care once established and will live and bloom for many years. With over 900 cultivars for sale in the US there are enough choices to fit almost every want or need. Here are some characteristics to consider when buying peonies.

1. Color

Color is probably the characteristic that tops the list of most people. Pink is the color that usually comes to mind when I first think of peonies with white or dark red close behind. But if you look closely many pink, red or white peonies also have large, numerous, conspicuous yellow stamens.

Example: ‘Doreen’ (magenta-rose, Japanese, 32” tall, midseason)

Doreen_sm

There are peonies that are completely yellow.

Example: ‘Prairie Moon’ (pale yellow, single, 32” tall, midseason)

Prairie_Moon

A few peonies are lilac.

Example: ‘May Lilac’ (lilac, single, 32”, early)

May_Lilac_sm

A new color in peonies is coral.

Example: ‘ Coral Sunset’ (coral flowers with ruffled edges fade to ivory, semi-double, 32” tall, early midseason)

Coral_Sunset_sm

Some peonies are two shades of the same color.

Example: ‘Pink Derby’ (outer petal bright pink, inner petals light pink and cream; bomb-type double, 26” tall, midseason)

pink derby

A few peonies have petals with contrasting colors.

Example: ‘Athena (white with raspberry flares, single, 30”, very early)

Athena_sm

Some peony bushes will bear flowers of two different colors on the same bush.

Example: ‘Mister Ed’ (pink and blush cream bomb-type, double, 36” tall, midseason)

Mister_Ed_sm

2. Number of Petals (also called Form)

You may have noticed that the peonies shown above have vastly different number of petal or petal-like structures. Peonies have been divided into 5 different forms.

a. Single is the simplest form. Five or more petals are arranged in a single row around a center of pollen bearing stamens

Example: ‘White Innocence’ (white, single, 48” tall, late midseason)

White Innocence

b. Semi double: Five or more wide petal arranged around a center of pollen bearing stamens mixed with petals.

Example: ‘Salmon Dream’ (Pink, semi-double, 32” tall, midseason)

Salmon_Dream_sm

c. Japanese: Five or more petals around a center consisting of wide stamens that have no pollen (stamenoides).

Example ‘Sword Dance’ (Red petals with yellow red streaked staminodes, Japanese, 36’ tall, late)

Sword_Dance_sm

d. Double: Five or more outer petals with stamens (in the center) transformed into petals giving the flower a full round appearance. Since the stamens have been transformed into petals, double flowers are often sterile.

Example: ‘Tourangelle’ (apple-blossom pink with cream-white shading at the base, double, 36” tall, midseason)

Tourangelle_sm

If the outer petals around a center of smaller petals forms a mound this flower is said to be a bomb type double.

Example: ‘Angel Cheeks’ (light pink, bomb type double, 32” tall, midseason)

Angel_Cheeks_sm

3. Fragrance: Some peonies have it and some don’t and those that do vary in the type of scent and include:

Rose scent

Example: Ann Cousins ( white, doble, 32’ tall, late)

Ann_Cousins_sm

Clove scent

Example: Red Charm (deep red, bomb-type double, 32”, early)

Red_Charm_sm

Lemon

Example: ‘Bartzella’ (yellow, semi-double to double, 34” tall, midseason)

Bartzella_sm

Spicy

Example: ‘Carnation Bouquet’ (pink, double, 32” tall, midseason)

Carnation_Bouquet_sm

4. Stem Strength: if you hate to stake this characteristic could be important.

Needs staking

Example: ‘Jayhawker’ (pink, double, 36” tall, midseason)

jayhawker

No need for staking

Example: ‘Big Ben’ (red, 36” tall, early midseason)

Big_Ben_sm

5. Use

Some peonies are very good cut flowers.

Example: ‘ Baroness Schroeder’ (blush to white, 35” tall, midseason)

baronessschroeder

Some peonies dry well.

Example: ‘Dresden Pink’ (pink, double, 36’, late)

Dresden_Pink_sm

6. Time of Bloom: The exact time of bloom is dependent on your location so the bloom time is a relative. Most are midseason.

Very early (late March in the South, mid-April further North)

Example: ‘Sugar and Spice’ (salmon-orange, single, 24’, very early)

Sugar_n_Spice_sm

Early

Example: ‘Pink Hawaiian Coral’ (coral, semi-double, 34”, early)

Pink_Hawaiian_Coral_sm

Midseason

Example: ‘White Frost’ 9white, double, 36” tall, midseason)

White_Frost_sm

Late 94-6 weeks later than the early ones)

Example: ‘Sword Dance’ (red, Japanese, 36’ tall, late)

Sword_Dance_sm

7. Height: Most peonies vary in height from short to tall, with most somewhere in between.

Short

Example: ‘Border Charm’ (yellow, single, 22” tall, midseason)

Border_Charm_sm

Tall

Example: ‘Henry Bockstoce’ (cardinal red, double, 40” tall, midseason)

Henry_Bockstoce_sm

8. Foliage:

Divided

Example: ‘Edulis Superba’ (Pink, double, 36″, midseason)

foliage

Finely cut

Example: Paeonia tenuifolia rubra plena (red, double, 14” very early)

rubra plena

9. Chill Requirement: Most peonies require a certain number of chilling hours to break dormancy, grow and flower but some are tolerant of moderate zone 8 winters.

Example: ‘Kansas’ (red, double, 36’, midseason)

Kansas_sm (1)

Many combinations of characteristics are available so do not be restricted by the peonies shown above. Your local nursery will probably have a very narrow range of choices but on line sources have many, many more.  All of the peonies I have used to illustrate various characteristics are available on line at such places as at www.peonyparadise.com.  Order for fall planting.

Herbaceous Perennials pointer

Recommended Reading:

Herbaceous Perennial Plants: A Treatise on their Identification, Culture, and Garden Attributes