All About Peonies

all about peonyall about peony
By Judith Irven, gardening expert, landscape designer and writer.

A Passion for Peonies

With their gorgeous lush petals and sweet fragrance that herald the start of summer, it's hard not to fall in love with Peonies! There are over thirty naturally-occurring species of peonies. These are all members of the genus Paeonia and thus genetically related. Read on to learn more about the history and varieties of peonies.

History: Peonies are Global Citizens

The people of China have nurtured and cultivated peonies for over two thousand years. Originally they used peonies as a flavoring for food. But since the time of the elegant Tang dynasty (618-907), they bred peonies for their beautiful flowers and grew them in the imperial courts of China. nThen, about a thousand years ago, the people of Japan also took a liking to growing peonies for their beautiful flowers. In the eighteenth century, peony cultivation and breeding took hold in both England and France.

Varieties: The Wonders of Peony Hybridization

Because naturally-occurring peony species are genetically related, it means many of them can easily be crossed with one another. So, over the years, hybridizers have produced thousands of different ‘cultivated varieties’—or cultivars—all the plants that today we call ‘peonies’.

  • Herbaceous Perennials: Most peony cultivars are herbaceous and typically grow about three feet high and up to four feet wide, with blooms up to eight inches in diameter. These will die back to the ground in the winter.
  • Tree Peonies: There are also a number of beautiful woody-stemmed peony shrubs that stay above ground in the winter and are called ‘tree peonies’. These grow about five feet high and are highly prized for their sumptuous blossoms up to a foot across.
  • Itoh Hybrids: Toichi Itoh was a skilled Japanese plant breeder and in the 1940’s Itoh experimented with cross-fertilizing tree and herbaceous peonies. The outcome was a totally new class of peony, the lovely ‘intersectionals’ or ‘Itoh hybrids’. Although Itoh hybrids die back in winter like their herbaceous peony parentage, they have also inherited the enormous blooms and finely divided leaves from their tree peony parentage.
     

Itoh Peonies are the result of a cross between garden peonies and tree peonies. While many Itoh peonies on the market today are bred in a lab via tissue culture, American Meadows only carries naturally-propagated, bare root Itoh peonies. We choose bare root Itohs because they will establish themselves in the garden and produce flowers earlier than lab-raised Itohs.

Peony Cultivars Come In Many Forms

Single peonies — such as 'Jan Van Leeuwne,' have one or two whorls of broad over-lapping petals surrounding a central mass of yellow stamens. These are the sophisticates of the peony world.

Semi-double peonies — such as 'Coral Charm,' have three or four whorls of petals, but the central mass of stamens is still easily visible.

Double peonies — such as ‘Sarah Bernhardt’, ‘Shirley Temple’ ‘Felix Crousse’ and ‘Karl Rosenfield,’ have sumptuous spherical flowers that are completely filled with numerous overlapping petals. Some blooms have more than a hundred petals!

Japanese or Anemone form peonies —such as ‘Bowl of Beauty,’ have one or more rows of large outer petals surrounding a mass of miniature petals called petaloids

Gold Medal Peonies

Back in 1923 the American Peony Society started awarding the society’s Gold Medal to peony cultivars that the committee considered truly outstanding—a tradition continued almost every year since. As a result, as of 2016, fifty-six peony cultivars are now designated Gold Medal Recipients.

Creating an Inspring Peony Collection

Back in 1923 the American Peony Society started awarding the society’s Gold Medal to peony cultivars that the committee considered truly outstanding—a tradition continued almost every year since. As a result, as of 2016, fifty-six peony cultivars are now designated Gold Medal Recipients.

Some gardeners become completely smitten by peonies and it becomes a lifelong passion. They collect peonies that show off the different forms, from single, semi-double, double and the Japanese or anemone form. A few may even try their hands at breeding their own new cultivars.

Before long their whole year revolves around that precious month in early summer when the peonies bloom!

Bill Countryman was one such peony collector. Always a naturalist and environmentalist, in 1991 at age 71, Bill decided to follow his true passion and create an outstanding peony collection on his farm, which was nestled in the hills above Northfield, Vermont. Within a decade, and supported by his loving wife Anne, Bill had amassed a world-class peony collection with over 1500 different peony cultivars -- including every Gold Medal recipient to date. Today, the farm is under new stewardship, and every June the breathtakingly beautiful display of peonies at Bill's farm continues to delight all who visit.


red peonies in a gardenred peonies in a garden

An impressive collection of peonies in bloom.

 About the Author: Judith Irven is an accomplished Vermont landscape designer and garden writer, and she delights in helping people everywhere create beautiful gardens. You can visit her online at OutdoorSpacesVermont.com.

Learn More

Learn tips & techniques for planting peonies, how to grow them throughout the season, and how to care for them at the end of the season. 

With so many gorgeous peony varieties available, how will you know which is right for your garden? We'll help you choose, so you can enjoy long-living peonies for years to come. 

Curious about this special hybrid peony? Read our article to learn more.

Shop Peonies

  1. Pink Peony Sarah Bernhardt, Paeonia lactiflora

    'Sarah Bernhardt' is a beloved Peony with large double flowers in fresh, pastel pink. Introduced in 1906, this longtime favorite blooms dependably year after year and presents a heal...

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    Sarah Bernhardt Peony Sarah Bernhardt Double Peony Paeonia lactiflora Sarah Bernhardt
    As low as $16.98 Sale $11.04
    Per Bag of 1
    'Sarah Bernhardt' is a beloved Peony with large double flowers in fresh, pastel pink. Introduced in 1906, this longtime favorite blooms dependably year after year and presents a healthy amount of emerald green foliage to add interest to the garden throughout the season. Also known for its fragrance, 'Sarah Bernhardt' makes a great cut flower - try it in arrangements or float it all by itself in a simple bowl. Like all peonies, this one is deer resistant, cold hardy and extremely long-lived. (Paeonia lactiflora)
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  2. Red and Pink and White Peony Cotton Candy Mix, Paeonia lactiflora, Peony

    Cotton Candy Peony Mix is the perfect choice for peony lovers that just can’t decide! This selection of classic colors includes one each of: 'Sarah Bernhardt' (pink), 'Karl Rosen...

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    Cotton Candy Peony Mix Cotton Candy Double Peony Mix Paeonia lactiflora Cotton Candy Mix
    As low as $39.98 Sale $29.99
    Per Bag of 3
    Cotton Candy Peony Mix is the perfect choice for peony lovers that just can’t decide! This selection of classic colors includes one each of: 'Sarah Bernhardt' (pink), 'Karl Rosenfield' (red), and 'Shirley Temple' (white). Each tried and true variety has impressive 6-8” wide flowers, perfect for summer arrangements and wedding bouquets. Peonies are long-lived plants that hold their foliage beautifully after their bloom season has passed. (Paeonia lactiflora)
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  3. Award Winning Peony Collection

    Three American Peony Society 'Gold Medal' winners make up this champion collection of the best-of-the-best peonies! 'Coral Charm' has pastel pink petals and a frilly gold center, 'P...

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    Award Winning Peony Collection
    $127.98 Sale $95.99
    Per Collection of 3
    Three American Peony Society 'Gold Medal' winners make up this champion collection of the best-of-the-best peonies! 'Coral Charm' has pastel pink petals and a frilly gold center, 'Pink Hawaiian Coral' flowers in a saturated rosy-orange, and 'Canary Brilliants' Itoh peony brings semi-double blooms of creamy yellow to the garden. All are fragrant and deer resistant.
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  4. Shirley Temple Peony

    ‘Shirley Temple’ shines with white double blooms sporting hints of blush pink. As the season progresses the silky petals fade to ivory white. Named for the famous child star of H...

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    Shirley Temple Peony Garden Peony Shirley Temple, Double Peony Paeonia lactiflora Shirley Temple
    $17.98 Sale $11.69
    Per Bag of 1
    ‘Shirley Temple’ shines with white double blooms sporting hints of blush pink. As the season progresses the silky petals fade to ivory white. Named for the famous child star of Hollywood in the 1940s, ‘Shirley Temple’ is a spectacle to behold and a favorite among peony-lovers. A mid-season peony that is sure to steal the stage. (Paeonia lactiflora)
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Shop Itoh Peonies

  1. Red Itoh Peony Scarlet Heaven, Paeonia Itoh

    'Scarlet Heaven' Itoh Peony has striking, deep scarlet-red petals that surround golden yellow centers on enormous single flowers. The 7 to 9 inch blooms arrive in late spring and are...

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    Scarlet Heaven Itoh Peony Scarlet Heaven Itoh Peony, Intersectional Peony Paeonia (Intersectional hybrid) Scarlet Heaven
    $73.98 Sale $36.99
    Per Bag of 1
    'Scarlet Heaven' Itoh Peony has striking, deep scarlet-red petals that surround golden yellow centers on enormous single flowers. The 7 to 9 inch blooms arrive in late spring and are lightly fragrant. Cold hardy and resistant to disease, 'Scarlet Heaven' does not require staking and is resistant to both deer and rabbits. (Paeonia Itoh)
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  2. Yellow Itoh Peony Bartzella, Paeonia

    'Bartzella' Itoh Peony brings a rare presentation to the peony world, with charming yellow blooms streaked crimson red at center. Each unusual bloom carries a sweet, citrusy fragranc...

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    Bartzella Itoh Peony Bartzella Itoh Peony, Intersectional Peony Paeonia (Intersectional hybrid) Bartzella
    $49.98 Sale $37.49
    Per Bag of 1
    'Bartzella' Itoh Peony brings a rare presentation to the peony world, with charming yellow blooms streaked crimson red at center. Each unusual bloom carries a sweet, citrusy fragrance and measures up to 8 inches across. Flowering in late spring, 'Bartzella' is both deer and rabbit-resistant and lasts for an impressive time when cut for arrangements. (Paeonia Itoh)
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  3. Itoh Peony Canary Brilliants, Paeonia Itoh Canary Brilliants

    Canary Brilliants Itoh Peony has creamy yellow double blooms with delicate rose centers. Lightly fragrant, this Itoh peony can have 30-50 blooms per season once established. Perfect ...

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    Canary Brilliants Itoh Peony Canary Brilliants Itoh Peony, Intersectional Peony Paeonia (Intersectional hybrid) Canary Brilliants
    $69.98 Sale $45.49
    Per Bag of 1
    Canary Brilliants Itoh Peony has creamy yellow double blooms with delicate rose centers. Lightly fragrant, this Itoh peony can have 30-50 blooms per season once established. Perfect in sun or part shade our exclusive cultivar will wow everyone who sees it! (Paeonia Itoh)
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  4. Itoh Peony First Arrival, Paeonia

    'First Arrival' Itoh Peony is early to bloom, showering the garden with large, 8 inch, rose-scented flowers in mid spring. Pink-lavender semidouble blossoms are stained a cranberry p...

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    First Arrival Itoh Peony First Arrival Itoh Peony, Intersectional Peony Paeonia (Intersectional hybrid) First Arrival
    $69.98 Sale $52.49
    Per Bag of 1
    'First Arrival' Itoh Peony is early to bloom, showering the garden with large, 8 inch, rose-scented flowers in mid spring. Pink-lavender semidouble blossoms are stained a cranberry purple at the base of each petal and surround perfect golden centers. Sweetly fragrant with dark green foliage, 'First Arrival' produces masses of excellent cut flowers. Easy to grow and deer resistant. (Paeonia Itoh)
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