Plethora of Peonies

Peonies have been cherished by gardeners for centuries.  They were such prized possessions that early settlers took small plants with them as they traveled west in their covered wagons.  While most peony species are not native to the US, they have become the unofficial flower of Memorial Day.  

Types of Peonies

There are several different peony species and hybrids that are ideally suited for Midwestern landscapes.  Planting more than one peony type in the landscape can extend the bloom time so you can admire the beautiful blooms for a longer period in spring.  Regardless of which type of peony chosen, you can’t go wrong in selecting, planting, and enjoying peonies. 
Fernleaf peonies (Paeonia tenuifolia) are noted for their dissected, threadlike leaves – giving the plant a fine textured appearance in the landscape.  Their bold, dark red to burgundy flowers contrast nicely with the fine foliage on 2-foot tall plants.  Fernleaf peonies are early bloomers, blooming before the tree and common peonies.  They are one of the more expensive peonies to purchase since they are slow growing.  Fernleaf peonies are regarded as cherished heirlooms by many home gardeners.  Plant are often passed from one generation to the next and they frequently occupy a prominent spot in the landscape.
Tree peonies (Paeonia suffruitcosa) have woody stems like trees and shrubs. Therefore their stems do not die back to the ground each year.  They are considered small shrubs in the landscape reaching 3 to 5 feet tall in the Midwest.  Their flowers are the largest of the different types of peonies.  Flowers can be 8 inches across and are available in single, semi-double, and double flower forms.  Tree peonies also have one of the widest range of flower colors, including: white, pink, red, lavender, peach, yellow and pale green.  The leaves are also more deeply lobed than herbaceous peonies.  They typically start blooming before common peonies.
Common peonies (Paeonia latiflora) are the most widely grown type of peony.  They are herbaceous plants because their leaves and stems die to the ground each fall and reappear the following spring.  Many cultivars or varieties are available with an assortment of flower types, colors, and bloom times.  Flower colors include: pink, peach, red, lavender, and white.  Flower forms can be single, semi-double, double, Japanese or anemone, and crown or bomb types.  Flowers usually appear in mid to late May (early, mid, and late season cultivars available) and last for one to two weeks depending on weather.  Flowers are often heavy especially after a rain, therefore, they may require staking to keep them upright.  These are vigorous growers, reaching 2-3 feet tall, and generally the least expensive type of peony sold. 
Intersectional or Itoh hybrids are the result of crosses between common and tree peonies.  Plants have large, colorful flowers and foliage that resemble tree peonies, but they typically die back to the ground each winter like the common peonies.  Plants are normally 2-3 feet tall.  Blooming begins as common peonies are ending. Flower colors range from pink, purple, lavender, burgundy, peach, white, and yellow. 
Woodland peonies (Paeonia japonica and Paeonia obovata) are the first peonies to bloom.  These species are frequently planted in part shade under deciduous trees.  They bloom early enough in the spring so they receive plenty of direct sunlight before the trees completely leaf out.  These peonies typically have single, white or pale pink flowers.  These species are also noted for their attractive seed pods in late summer and early fall.

Shows fernleaf peony bud amidst its trademark thin, pointed leaves
Fernleaf peonies are known for there threadlike leaves.

Blooming bright pink tree peony flower
Tree peonies have woody stems and bloom in a wide variety of colors.

A row of blooming common peonies
Common peonies are the most widely grown type of peony.

Yellow blooming Itoh hybrid peonies
Itoh hybrid peonies are the result of crosses between common and tree peonies.


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