Memorial Day means many things – cookouts, summer weather . . . and peonies! Peonies are in bloom right now all over the state. But did you know that there are species of peonies that bloom earlier or later than the common peony? If you love peonies as much as I do, you will want to try some different species to extend the bloom in your landscape.
Herbaceous peonies (Paeonia latiflora hybrids) are the staple peony in the garden. Herbaceous means succulent – so this type dies back to the ground every winter. Flower colors include white, pink, peach, red/burgundy, and lavender. The common herbaceous peony is also available with different flower forms: single, semi-double, double, and Japanese/Anemone. The different flower forms are based on the number of flower petals and the absence of pollen. The flowers are often so large that they flop to the ground from their sheer weight unless supports are used.
Fern-leaf peonies (Paeonia tenuifolia) are also herbaceous peonies but they are noted for the fine, dissected foliage. Flowers are single or double and usually a dark red color. This delicate foliage texture contrasts nicely with the bold blossoms. Fern-leaf peony is the first of peonies to flower.
Tree peonies (Paeonia suffruticosa) are not full-size trees, but they do produce woody stems that survive above the ground over the winter – unlike the other peony types. Tree peonies reach about 3 to 5 feet in height in the Midwest. Tree peony flowers are available in the widest range of colors, including white, pink, red, lavender, yellow, peach, and green.. Flowers of tree peonies are also very large, often reaching 6 to 8 inches in diameter. Tree peonies typically bloom after the common herbaceous peony.
Hybrids exist between tree peonies and the common herbaceous peonies. These hybrids are often called Intersectional hybrids or Itoh peonies (after Japanese hybridizer Toichi Itoh). Itoh peonies die back to the ground each winter. In the spring the tree-peony-like foliage is followed by large, colorful flowers. While many flower colors are available, yellow is the most common. These peonies start blooming as the common herbaceous peonies are starting to fade.
Spring and fall are the best times to purchase and plant peonies. The common peony will be the least expensive and many cultivars will be available at local garden centers. The other types are slower growing and often harder to produce, therefore they are more expensive. Whichever peony you prefer, they all look stunning in sunny sites with well-drained soils. Within a couple of years of planting, they should reward you with elegant blooms every spring.
Single flower, herbaceous peony on the ISU campus. Photo by Cindy Haynes