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Guide to Peonies

Meredith Gaines

Meredith's love for plants started at a young age, and only grew when she started working in the Desert Exhibit at the South Carolina Botanical Gardens and the Historic Filoli Estate in the Bay Area. After graduating from Clemson University (GO TIGERS!) with a degree in Biology and Horticulture, she found her niche in the FastGrowingTrees.com family as a horticulturist and has grown in her current role as Senior Plant Expert.

She currently resides in her hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, and enjoys spending any time she can outdoors. She learns new things about plants every day and loves sharing her plant knowledge and tips with those around her. Her favorite plant is constantly changing, but her long-time favorites are peonies, oak trees, and ferns.

Questions? Contact Meredith at resources@fastgrowingtrees.com.

Written by

Meredith Gaines

Peonies are long-living perennial plants with blooms that are truly unmatched in the plant world! The flowers come to life and are long-lasting, full of charming petals and unique colors that brighten up the garden once the weather starts to warm up. They’re also perfectly suited for cut flower arrangements, making a beautiful presentation in vases.

Types of Peonies

Peonies, as a group, is quite large, featuring different types that fill different needs. Below, we’ve broken down the main categories of peonies and their characteristics, so you can be sure to choose the one that best fits your landscape.

Tree Peonies

  • Bloom in early to mid spring
  • Woody shrubs that grow to around 7 ft. tall by 5 ft. wide
  • Moderate growers putting on around half a foot of woody growth per year
  • Very large flowers (7-10 inches across) in a wide variety of colors
  • Deep green foliage that turns a bronzy purple come fall
  • Poor tolerance of transplanting
  • Stems do not die back in the winter
  • Bloom on old wood
  • Blooms last a long time

Herbaceous Peonies

  • Cold tolerant
  • Bloom in mid to late spring
  • Long-lived–around 50 years in the same location
  • Low maintenance, deer resistant, and pest resistant
  • Over 30 varieties to choose from
  • Need to be cut back in winter
  • Will grow up from the ground in spring
  • Stay compact and small

Itoh Peonies

  • Wide color variety and shape
  • Will die back to the ground each year
  • No staking needed
  • Deer resistant
  • Very large blooms
  • Compact size around 3 ft. tall by 3 ft. wide
  • Tolerant of heat and humidity

Felix Crousse Peony

Check out these specific peony recommendations:

How to Grow Peonies

Location

Find a location with full sun (around 6-8 hrs per day), well-draining soil, and good air circulation. Air circulation is very important to prevent diseases, so don't place your peonies in a corner or up against a wall!

Soil

Amend the soil if needed with compost to add fertility and drainage. Overall, peonies are very tolerant of a wide variety of soil types and should do well in most soils or with a standard potting mix incorporated into the area.

soil

Mulch

Mulch is highly recommended, as it adds to the soil health over time, suppresses weeds, and prevents the soil from becoming dry. Any mulch that will break down over time will work. We suggest using pine needles, straw, and shredded bark. Avoid using rocks, wood chips, or gravel, as the heat and weight of the layer can suppress growth and flowers.

Water

When first planting, water peonies well to help them establish in their new home. Springtime watering will depend on the rain in your area, but try to keep the area evenly moist yet not soggy. Try to make sure the top 6 inches of soil are wet, watering twice a week, and avoiding any standing water. In summer, aim to water your peonies weekly with around 1 inch of water to encourage growth. Come fall and winter, your peonies will be entering dormancy and no additional watering is needed.

watering

Fertilizer

Peonies are known to be heavy feeders since it takes a lot of energy to make such large and colorful flowers. If preferred, mix in a starter fertilizer or bone meal at the time of planting to give them a head start. Reapply fertilizer as directed on the packaging through summer and stopping in fall. Any low nitrogen fertilizer (5-10-10) will work, as well as any fertilizer formulated for roses.

Support

Peonies need support for the large flowers they produce, especially the herbaceous peonies that lack the woody stems of the Itoh and tree forms. To support the blooms and prevent them from flopping, stake at the time of planting using a grid, peony cage (like a wide tomato cage), or bamboo stakes. Feel free to leave your staking up all year to remind yourself where they’re planted when they die back come fall (herbaceous form only).

Pruning

To encourage future blooming, deadhead the flowers immediately after they’re done flowering to prevent the energy of the plant from producing seeds instead of more blooms for the next year. Feel free to cut back into the bushy part of the plant around 6-12 inches down or more with a pair of sharp pruners when removing spent flowers.

pruning

For herbaceous peonies, cut back the stems to the ground after the first frost–don’t worry, they’ll come back! For Itoh and tree forms, not much pruning is required and will only be needed every couple of years if you experience slowed or leggy growth. To correct sluggish or slow growth, prune right before new growth appears in spring, but be aware that this might sacrifice some of that year’s flowers. If you wish to shape, just prune in fall–your growth won't be as vigorous, but you won’t be sacrificing any of that year’s flowers.

Common Issues

No plant is invincible, and that includes peonies. But the good news is that most of the issues that peonies face can be prevented or resolved if you know what to look for.

Botrytis

This is a very common fungal issue with fruiting and flowering plants in the spring when humid conditions persist.

Symptoms

  • Affects new growth and buds.
  • More common in greenhouses where the conditions are crowded and humid with low air circulation.
  • Looks like fuzzy mold that grows on the soft and tender parts of plants.

Treatment

  • Avoid overhead watering. Water early in the day to prevent wet leaves.
  • Keep the area sanitary. If you notice that one plant has it, try to isolate that plant until it's better.
  • Increase airflow and ventilation to prevent the fungus from settling on the plants.
  • Remove affected foliage with sanitized pruners. Sanitize between each cut.
  • Spray with fungicide if needed.

Powdery Mildew

Powdery Mildew is a type of fungus that grows on leaves. High humidity causes the spores to spread and commonly occurs on young leaves (mature leaves are unaffected normally).

Symptoms

  • This will look like you coated your plant in flour or powder.
  • Leaves will curl and become discolored.
  • The mildew will stay on the top of the leaf.
  • Flowers can also be affected.

Treatment

  • Remove affected foliage. Sanitize your tools between each cut.
  • Increase airflow by staking the plant, making sure there is enough light penetration and the leaves can dry.
  • Optional: Apply a new layer of mulch to prevent re-infection. Remember to dispose of the affected material.
  • Sprays
    • Spray with 40% milk and 60% water.
    • Use Neem oil as directed on the bottle.
    • For bad cases, use sulfur or copper-based fungicides.
  • Make sure to water in the morning with low pressure to avoid splashing and to ensure that the leaves can dry out.

Harvesting Peony Blooms

peony arrangement

Timing peony cutting for indoor blooms

Gently squeeze the bud, it should feel soft and the outer petals should open slightly. If this occurs, then your flower is about to open and should last around a week once open. This is also referred to as the “marshmallow” stage.

Bright Idea: If you have stubborn buds that aren’t opening, you can add sugar or a little 7UP® Soda to the water in the vase to help them open up sooner.

How to properly cut a peony

  1. With a sharp pair of pruners, cut the flowers at an angle and gently remove any foliage that will block the buds from completely opening.
  2. Keep in cool water. The portion of the stem underwater shouldn’t have any leaves. If you do have leaves, simply remove them before placing them in the vase.
  3. When arranging flowers in your vase, leave room for the peony bloom, as it’ll take up some space once fully open.
  4. Change water frequently, about every other day, and lightly snip off the stem ends at a 45 degree angle to give a quick refresh and allow them to better absorb water.

Peonies and Ants

Ants and peonies have a special relationship, but it's not what you might think! Ants aren’t required for a peony to bloom as some gardeners might believe. Instead, peonies reward and purposefully attract ants to them by producing nectar right below the bud. This is why it may look like ants are “tickling” the flowers open, but instead, they’re actually protecting them. The presence of the ants keeps other insects like aphids and thrips from damaging the flowers before they have the chance to open. In other words, peonies reward and hire ants to bodyguard their flowers–pretty cool, right?

We understand not wanting ants in your house, but while your flowers are outside, let the ants do their thing. They keep you from having to apply pesticides or guard your flowers yourself! When it is time to cut the blooms and bring them inside, simply turn the flowers upside down and tap the stems to shake off any ants. You may find it's helpful to do this in the morning, as ants can be groggy with dew and less numerous than later on in the day. You can also dunk your flowers in cool water after cutting to remove ants if you’d prefer.

peonies

Adding Peonies to Your Collection

Peonies are packed with impressive attributes and make a wonderful addition to the garden, as well as to cut flower arrangements. And with varying types to choose from, you’re sure to discover one (or two or three!) that meets your preferences.

From planting and maintaining to treating common issues and cutting stems for indoor use, we hope our guide has provided helpful insight into the beautiful world of peonies. Now, you can grow your own with confidence. Now, check out our peony varieties to get started!

Meredith Gaines

Meredith's love for plants started at a young age, and only grew when she started working in the Desert Exhibit at the South Carolina Botanical Gardens and the Historic Filoli Estate in the Bay Area. After graduating from Clemson University (GO TIGERS!) with a degree in Biology and Horticulture, she found her niche in the FastGrowingTrees.com family as a horticulturist and has grown in her current role as Senior Plant Expert.

She currently resides in her hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, and enjoys spending any time she can outdoors. She learns new things about plants every day and loves sharing her plant knowledge and tips with those around her. Her favorite plant is constantly changing, but her long-time favorites are peonies, oak trees, and ferns.

Questions? Contact Meredith at resources@fastgrowingtrees.com.

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