Few plants are revered like tree peonies. The Chinese tree peony is the national flower of China and was once grown exclusively by the emperor. For centuries the blossoms of tree peonies have been called luminescent, silky, exotic, exquisite, and magnificent. The accolades continue today.
What is a tree peony?
Tree peonies (Paeonia suffruiticosa) are actually shrubs, not trees. They produce woody stems and do not die back to the ground like herbaceous peonies. They are slow growing but long lived. Some specimens in China are thought to be more than 200 years old. Plants eventually grow to 3 to 5 feet tall, but they may take decades to do so.
Tree peonies have larger flowers than herbaceous peonies and are available in a wider range of colors. Yellow, purple, maroon, and green are a few colors commonly available in tree peonies but rarely seen in herbaceous peonies. Both single and double flower forms are common in both types of peonies. Many varieties of tree peonies have fragrant flowers or flowers with contrasting centers, adding to their appeal. Tree peonies bloom a couple of weeks earlier than herbaceous peonies. In fact, they should be blooming soon if they are not already in bloom.
Caring for Tree Peonies
Because a tree peony can last longer than many of the gardeners who plant them, it is important that they are sited well. Plants prefer rich, moist, well-drained soils in partial or dappled shade. Plants bloom best in sunny sites, but flowers last longer in shady sites. Although tree peonies are hardy to zone 4, they do require some protection from our winter winds. Sites with eastern exposures or close to buildings are ideal.
Tree peonies are sold bare root and in containers. Bare root plants are best planted in fall, not spring, to allow for quick root establishment in fall and good growth in spring. Containerized plants can be planted any time in the spring or fall. Avoid planting during hot summer weather.
Because tree peonies are typically grafted, plant the graft union 4 6 inches below the surface of the soil. Over time, the tree peony develops its own roots and does not depend on the grafted root system. For containerized plants, be sure to plant the peonies at the same level they were in the containers. Regular care, including water and fertilizer, is recommended as needed. In fall, several inches of mulch should be mounded around the base of plants.
Both Chinese and Japanese cultivars or varieties of tree peonies are available. Both types are beautiful. Names of the cultivars are equally beautiful. Who wouldn t want Honeydew from Heaven , White Screen Reflects a Blue Jewel , or Green Dragon Lying on a China Ink Stone ? Other cultivars names like Godaiishu , Sahohimine , or Kamata Nishiki are more difficult to pronounce but equally magnificent. Even the varieties simply labeled Red , Pink , or Yellow are fantastic. You can t go wrong when selecting a cultivar of tree peony.
Specimen plants like tree peonies command a hefty price . Be prepared to pay considerably more for a tree peony than a herbaceous peony. Prices usually range from $30 to $300 per plant, depending on cultivar. But doesn t every garden and gardener deserve to be treated like royalty?
This article originally appeared in the 5/23/2003 issue.