Wednesday, January 10, 2007

In Praise of Peonies

By Becke Davis

Peonies have been around for years, but for a time they suffered from the stigma of being “old fashioned.” Today peonies are hot sellers for a number of reasons -- the “old fashioned” varieties are popular with those looking to recreate their “grandma’s gardens,” new, shorter peonies are filling a need for those with smaller landscapes, a wide variety of beautiful single-flowered peonies and those on strong stems have removed the problem of floppiness after a storm, and exciting new coral cultivars are drawing in both new gardeners and collectors. Peonies are also exceptionally popular as cut flowers, and as the model for designer textiles and home decorating items.


*Ants are necessary for peony flowers to bloom

False. Ants are attracted to the sugar sap produced by peonies when they are in bud. Some believe that there is a more symbiotic relationship between ants and peonies, but this has not been proven. Although some say that ants are necessary for peony blooms to open, it has been shown that peonies will bloom without the presence of ants.

*Peonies are exceptionally long-lived.

True. Peonies can live 50 years or more, some have lived as long as 100 years. Flowering may diminish with age, a sign that the plant needs to be divided.

*Peonies can only be planted and divided in the fall.

True, the optimal time to plant peonies, which bloom in late spring and early summer, is in September and October - particularly for bare root peonies. Some professionals say planting, transplanting and dividing can also be done successfully in very early spring but this may delay blooming until the following spring. Another possibility is to plant young peonies in containers, and then when the roots are fully developed, transplant them into the garden in spring or summer.

*Peonies can only bloom in cold climates.

True, to a point. Peonies need a period of winter dormancy, about 100 “chilling hours,” to ensure flowering. Some peonies need more exposure to cold, others less. Klehm’s Song Sparrow Perennial Farm stresses that “adequate moisture is imperative” for peonies in warmer climates. Early blooming peonies are the best choices for warmer climates, such as ‘Coral Charm’, ‘Miss America’ and ‘Do Tell’. Also, the eyes should be planted at a more shallow depth than further north, only one inch below the surface.

*The darker red the peony flower, the worse it will smell.

False. Peony fragrance is not linked to color characteristics. Some claim that double flowered peonies are more fragrant than singles, but no authoritative source confirms this. Peonies known for their fragrance include ‘A La Mode’, ‘Angel Cheeks’, ‘Vivid Rose’, ‘Raspberry Sundae’, ‘Festiva Maxima’, ‘Edulis Superba’, ‘Fragrant Bouquet’ and ‘Philippe Rivoire’.

*Peonies can’t be moved, once planted.

Established peony plants may need to move if the roots of nearby trees are affecting their growth, if the growth of nearby plants has created excessive shade, if the plants need to be divided, and so on. Dig deeply and remove as much of the roots as possible when digging up the plant. Transplant into a site with full sun with well-drained soil. Dig a hole deep enough to accommodate all the roots, cultivating the soil to a depth of at least a foot. Set the peony so that the eyes are about two inches below the surface of the soil, with the eyes facing upwards. Water in well, making sure the eyes do not settle in deeper after watering.

The genus name Paeonia is said to come from Paeon, a physician in Greek mythology. In China, where they were dubbed the “king of flowers,” peonies have been cultivated for over 1,500 years. They were not only grown for the ornamental value of their flowers, but for medicinal purposes, and even for teas and gruels, made from their seeds and roots. Peonies are only native to the Northern Hemisphere, from northwest Africa to the Arctic Circle. There are from 30 to 60 or more species of peony -- depending on the source.
Peonies originate from China, Tibet, Europe, Turkey, Asia Minor and northwestern America. Herbaceous peonies (Paeonia officinalis, P. lactiflora, P. veitchii, P. anomla, and the fernleaf peony, P. tenuifolia) are the most common form, but the woody tree peonies (Paeonia suffruticosa, P. X lemoinei, P. delavayi) are gaining in popularity. A relatively recent addition to the mix is the group of rare hybrids called “intersectionals,” named after hybridizer Toichi Itoh. In the 1960s Itoh successfully crossed a yellow-flowering tree peony with a double-white flowering herbaceous peony, resulting in a group of herbaceous peonies with the bright yellow flowers more commonly found on tree peonies. There are now additional colors and cultivars in the intersectionals. As for the flower most people think of when they hear the word “peony,” there are literally thousands of hybrids and cultivars of herbaceous peonies, which are the focus of this article.
Herbaceous peonies perform best in zones 2-8, in full sun and moist, well-drained soil with a pH of 6.5 to 7.0. Cut back peony foliage in the fall to help avoid fungal infections, but never compost peony foliage. Leaf blotch, botrytis blight. scale, Verticillium wilt, Phytophthora blight and powdery mildew are among the pests and problems that occasionally effect peonies. Peonies may not bloom if the buds are exposed to a late freeze, if the plants are immature or planted too deeply, if they are overcrowded, have insufficient sunlight, if the ground is either too wet or too dry, if the plant is getting too much nitrogen or too little phosphorus or potassium. Peony blooms may also be reduced by excessively hot weather. Young peonies may take a year or more to bloom -- this is normal. Some experts recommend pinching any buds that form the first year so the plant will concentrate on root growth.
Once established, peonies require little maintenance and have the benefit of being resistant to wildlife such as deer and rabbits. Be careful not to overfertilize peonies -- too much nitrogen may reduce the number of blooms and an excess of fertilizer can burn the plant. Peonies are generally long-lived plants but continued over-fertilizing can reduce their life span. Plant peonies where they will have little root competition and where there is plenty of room for air to circulate between the plants. While peonies benefit from moist soil, it must be well-drained -- they will not tolerate wet feet. It is preferable to water peonies from a soaker hose, since wet leaves can lead to fungal diseases.
Peonies range in height from rock garden peonies as small as 14 inches to over four feet tall. They come in colors ranging from all shades of white, cream, opalescent, soft yellow, shell pink, rose, rose carmine, pink, blush pink, cerise, fuchsia, scarlet, ruby, fire-engine red, maroon, plum, dark crimson, watermelon, cranberry, magenta and burgundy to coral, yellow, salmon, raspberry, peach, chocolate, chartreuse. green-cream, lime green, orange-red and black-red as well as bicolor flowers or those blotched, streaked, flared or tipped with color and those with unusual or colored centers and stigmas.
Peonies are classified as early, midseason or late bloomers. The basic flower forms of herbaceous peonies include single, Japanese, semi-double, double or full double, bomb, with some adding crown, anemone and novelty. Anemone-flowered peonies are sometimes listed as single or Japanese, while novelty peonies may be listed within another group, such as ‘Double Decker’, called a “bomb on bomb”. Unusual looking peonies include ‘Spider Green’, ‘Summer Carnival’, ‘Quilt Show’, ‘Green Halo’, ‘Paree Fru Fru’, ‘Bric A Brac’, ‘Huang Jin Lung’ and ‘Daisy Coronet’.
Examples of each form include:

*’Pink Dogwood Whisper’
*’Green Lotus’
*’Prairie Moon’
*’Silver Dawn F3 Mix’

*’Bowl of Beauty’
*’Ursa Major’
*’Do Tell’
*’Cora Stubbs’
*’White Cap’

*’Coral Magic’
*’Illini Belle’
*’Abalone Pearl’
*’Raspberry Charm’

*’Vivid Rose’
*‘Etched Salmon’
*‘Mother’s Choice’
*’Philippe Rivoire’

*’Raspberry Sundae’
*’Angel Cheeks’
*’Salmon Beauty’
*’Pink Lemonade’
*’Chocolate Chip’

*‘Gay Paree’
*’Many Happy Returns’

*’Monsieur Jules Elie’ (sometimes listed as a Double)


Talk to anyone in the trade about peonies, and the name Roy G. Klehm is sure to come up. For four generations, the Klehm family has been one of the top breeders of herbaceous peonies. Peonies bred by Roy Klehm and his family are sold worldwide. Roy Klehm’s grandfather, Charles Klehm, was one of the founders of the American Peony Society in 1903. The American Peony Society has awarded its top prize, the Gold Medal, to several Klehm introductions over the years, including Carl Klehm’s ‘Pillow Talk’ in 1994, Roy G. Klehm’s ‘Pink Hawaiian Coral’ in 2000 and ‘Angel Cheeks’ in 2005, as well as ‘Etched Salmon’ (Cousins-R. Klehm) in 2002 and ‘Coral Sunset’ (Wissing-Klehm) in 2003. Roy G. Klehm was awarded the American Peony Society’s Saunders Memorial Medal in 1989. (
Roy Klehm recommends planting herbaceous peonies with the “eyes” two inches below the surface in the midwest, one in or less in warmer climates. Klehm recommends cutting off spent flower heads for neatness, then cutting the foliage down to the ground in October.
Klehm is excited about his new “Dance” series of herbaceous peonies, including ‘Waltz’, ‘Rumba’ and ‘Foxtrot’. “These are low and short, 22 to 24 inches, with single flowers that the rain doesn’t effect,” says Klehm. Among his favorites are the red-flowering, upright ‘Burma Ruby’, ‘Rubyette’ and the fire engine red ‘America’, the opalescent ‘Moonstone’, and Gold Medal winners ‘Bowl of Cream’, ‘Pillow Talk’ and ‘Angel Cheeks’. He also the likes the coral-flowered peonies, noting, “In 1960 Samuel Wissing, a chemist from Lombard, broke the coral barrier and we bought the original plant from him.” ‘Coral Charm’ was the first coral and for many years it has been one of the most popular peony for cut flowers in the world. In addition to ‘Coral Charm’, Klehm recommends ‘Coral Sunset’ and ‘Pink Hawaiian Coral’. He observes, “If peonies are sited right, they can live a long time - some more than 100 years. They last a long time, so plant the good ones.”
Klehm sells peonies to the retail market through Klehm’s Song Sparrow Perennial Farm in Avalon, WI and online at Klehm’s sells peonies to the wholesale market through its Beaver Creek Nursery, Inc. in Poplar Grove, IL. Dian Cenar, sales manager at Beaver Creek, observes, “On a wholesale (contractor) level, where they would use them more for massing, the best peonies are the more single ones. They hold their heads up best and lose their petals more cleanly. The best sellers in the last couple of years have been ‘Kansas’, ‘Scarlet O’Hara’ and ‘Krinkled White’, with the new coral colors catching on quickly. Landscape contractors tend to stay with the more tried and true. The retail market is where the trendy plants are.”
Renee Jaeger, farm manager at Klehm’s Song Sparrow Perennial Farm, says that their best sellers are the coral peonies, both the new varieties and the classics (‘Coral Charm’, ‘Coral Magic’, ‘Coral Supreme’), as well as new peony cultivars such as ‘Raspberry Clown’, ‘Double Decker’, ‘Ursa Major’ and ‘Puffed Cotton’ and classic peonies such as ‘Vivid Rose’ and ‘Red Charm’. “The hottest coral we offer is ‘Coral Charm’, followed by ‘Coral Magic’,” Jaeger observes. “The fragrance of our staff are ‘Zuzu’, ‘Bessie’, ‘Diana Parks’, ‘Pink Dogwood Whisper’ and the slightly fragrant ‘Martha’. Fragrance may be fleeting, a subjective trait that some people notice and others don’t. It may vary based on cultural conditions, and it may be dependent upon the age of the peonies. Fragrance is a great selling point but it is not always a constant.
“Fragrance is always a plus,” she adds, “but it is usually color and form that determine a personal favorite. I would love to tell you that we sell one style of peony more than others, but we don’t -- ‘Green Halo’ can be as popular as ‘Red Charm’ and ‘Eskimo Pie’. Our customers equally like the range of colors and styles we offer, and they have definite opinions as well. All the peonies we offer have strong stems, which translates into staying power after a storm.”

Rich and Carol Massat are the owners of the Growing Place Nursery and Flower Farm in Naperville and Aurora. Both sites have a retail operation and display gardens, with all plant production and greenhouses at the 17-acre Fox Valley site, on Montgomery Road in Aurora. Because a lot of their customers are new homeowners, the Growing Place has developed a very successful “Do-it-Yourself” series aimed at beginning gardeners. On August 12 they will feature “Top 10 Do-it-Yourself Questions and Answers” at the Aurora location, followed by “Do-it-Yourself Design in the Landscape” on August 26.
This year the Growing Place is celebrating the 70th anniversary of its Naperville site. Rich Massat’s aunt, Emma Glatzhofer, founded the nursery in 1936 under the name “Emma’s Perennials.” Glatzhofer had beds lined out on seven acres, and as the story goes, customer would pick their plants and she would dig them on the spot, wrap them in newspaper and sell them for seventy-five cents each.
In 1973, Rich Massat took over the company. In the early days, 80 - 100 percent of the business was perennials. Today, perennial sales make up about 60 percent, with over 1,000 varieties. Perennial sales manager Jeanette Goodlow says, “We now sell whatever is new and unusual -- unusual annuals as well as petunias, native trees and shrubs as well as the more popular ones.”
With the anniversary celebrations at the Naperville location this year, the Growing Place has tied-in a “Grandma’s Garden” theme, Goodlow notes. “This has been a fabulous year for peonies, because they want the plants like grandma grew. We sell the best peonies, including the fragrant peonies and the classics. They are not an impulse buy -- people usually ask for them specifically. Trends change, but ‘Festiva Maxima’ and ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ have always sold well. They are fairly common but you can’t beat the fragrance -- it does take you back to grandma’s garden. The prices are low on these because even though they are beautiful, classic and fragrant, they are common.
“ ‘Laddie’ is a very popular peony because it’s small, only 18 inches tall. It is a fernleaf peony with semi-double, magenta pink flowers. It is filled with flowers early, around Memorial Day -- it’s perfect for a small garden or for the front of a garden. We usually have a waiting list for it. Other good short peonies are ‘Rosalie’ and “Lancaster Imp’, which are similar to ‘Laddie’, and are great for people with limited space. I also like the single-flowered ‘Seashell’, a soft pink peony that looks like an anemone -- the single-flowered peonies don’t flop as much as the heavier doubles. ‘Coral Charm’ is an unusual color, and it has been very popular the past few years.”
The Growing Place also features tree peonies, notes Goodlow, which are shipped directly from a source in China. “They are fabulous!,” she says. “We can’t keep them on the shelves -- they come in lavenders, whites and pinks, and some are one-of-a-kind. They are very hardy -- you can see a lot of tree peonies in the walled garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden. They are beautiful, and they get to be four to five feet tall and wide, but they do tend to be expensive.”
With herbaceous peonies, customers look first for fragrance, then color, then form, says Goodlow. Strong stems are also a consideration. There are also collectors who come in looking for a specific peony, or peonies with specific characteristics such as early bloom time. The Growing Place grows some of their best selling peonies at the Aurora site, including ‘Laddie’, ‘Red Charm’, ‘Coral Charm’ and ‘Seashell’. Others are brought in and sold in containers.
Last year was the first time the Growing Place offered the peony ‘Mother’s Choice’. “It is a fabulous peony with nice, stiff stems and white double flowers. It is slightly fragrant and blooms late in the season. It’s in the 32 inch height range. Even with rain it wouldn’t flop over,” says Goodlow. “ ‘Dinner Plate’ is one for the collector -- it has huge double flowers. We got a few in years ago then couldn’t get it again. One of our favorite bomb type peonies is the early blooming ‘Red Charm’, which has fully double, rich dark red flowers.”
Goodlow selects the following peonies as some that are perennially popular:
“ ‘Kansas’ is a classic with watermelon red flowers, it is large and well-formed with strong stems. ‘Krinkled White’ is 24-36 inches tall, with single flowers that have a frilly look. ‘Highlight’ is another favorite, with real dark red, almost burgundy flowers and strong stems. I once made the mistake of planting it by orange flowers, though - not a good color combination! ‘Do Tell’ is another short peony, with real soft rosy pink flowers, almost a blush pink, that fade to white. ‘Raspberry Charm’ has semi-double, raspberry red flowers. It is new to us this year and I think it’s going to be a new favorite.”


Originally published in The Landscape Contractor magazine

With many thanks to Roy Klehm, with happy memories of the big pink and green barn
and to Renee Jaeger of Song Sparrow Perennial Farm

File Name: Peonies1.doc
Word Count: 2,869


American Peony Society,

Klehm’s Song Sparrow website and catalogues,

“Growing Peonies,” by Hope Weber, Ohio State University Extension Fact Sheet HYG-1241-94

“Popular Peonies,” by Ronald C. Smith and Robert G. Askew, North Dakota State University Extension Service, March 1995,

“Peonies for the Home Landscape,” by Erv Evans, North Carolina State University, Extension Service, 2/99 HIL-8501

“Pretty Peonies,” by Mary Hirschfeld, 6/17/2003, Cornell Plantations, Cornell University Publications, Ithaca, NY

“What’s so great about peonies?,” by Ted Sobkowich, Prairie Garden magazine, January 1, 2006

“A Passion for Peonies,” by Marie Proeller Hueston, Country Living Gardener magazine, Spring 2006

“Peonies - Fit for a Queen,” by Rebecca Sawyer-Fay, Country Living Gardener magazine, Spring 2004

“The enduring peony - Spring symbol of remembrance,” by Valerie Sudol, Home & Garden section, Star-Ledger, 9/20/2001, Newark, NJ

The Gardener’s Peony: Herbaceous and Tree Peonies, by Martin Page, 2005, Timber Press, Inc., Portland, OR

The Peony, by Alice Harding, Introduced and updated by Roy G. Klehm, 1993, Sagapress, Inc./Timber Press, Inc., Portland, OR

The Genus Paeonia, by Josef J. Halda with James W. Waddick, The Heartland Peony Society, 2004, Timber Press, Inc., Portland, OR


coffee and queso said...

Thanks for the information! I live in zone 8, in Austin. Climate be damned, I think I'm going to try a few of the warmer-climate varieties. Am I crazy?

Sandhya said...

Hi....could you write sometime on Hydrangeas (hope I spelt it right)? We live in tropical climate - India. And while we have a lot of blooms, we have been struggling with this one.

Anonymous said...

I also am wanting to take on the "challenge" of growing a beautiful Peony in the south...Birmingham, Al to be precise! From reading your article I can see several crimes that I have committed against my peonies! But perhaps not irreparable damage...I will check your posts for comments that refer to peonies in the southern part of the United States.

Becke Davis said...

Kim - the best peony authority I know is Roy Klehm at Klehm's Song Sparrow Perennial Farm:,&startrow=1&pageType=plantlist&subtype=all

His family business used to sponsor the Peony Pageant Parade in the town where I grew up, outside Chicago.

If you have specific questions about the best peonies for your area, you might contact him for advice.