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Peonies have been a garden favorite for centuries, which is both a blessing and a curse! The upside is the amazing selection available to us – as is the downside. With so many peonies available, how are you supposed to know which one is right for you and your garden?
When considering which type of peony is best for your property, you’ll first need to understand the differences between the two main types. Next, you'll explore a handful of other reasons that you'll allow to influence your final decision.
Getting your choice right from the beginning is mostly important because all Peonies can live for generations - they’re even sometimes passed down within a family.
Peonies are easy to care for, deer-resistant, and are generally free from disease (though some will struggle with mildews in hot & humid climates).
Let’s start with the two most popular types of Peonies and why you would choose them:
Garden peonies need at least six hours of good, full sunlight to thrive. Once established (2-3 yrs.), they become incredibly easy to care for. Unlike other flowering plants, peonies are fairly pest, disease and critter resistant.
Oftentimes, these soft-stemmed plants need to be staked or caged to keep them upright, especially if they’re exposed to any amount of wind or have produced heavy blossoms.
Their beautiful blooms are (and have always been) hugely popular in flower arrangements and bridal bouquets. No need for a professional florist here – peonies placed in a simple bowl are pure grace.
Garden Peonies are most popular in Zones 3 - 8, and may need a bit of extra care within the extreme edges of their range. One trick to getting them to behave just right, is to choose an early-blooming variety in the deep south, so that it will come into flower before the heat of summer hits. Likewise, a late-blooming Garden Peony is bound to be more successful in the northernmost portions of zone 3, where things will have warmed up enough for them at their peak bloom-time.
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Itoh Peonies are the creation of Japanese plant hybridizer Toichi Itoh, who worked tirelessly to cross a Garden Peony with a Tree Peony. With his heart set on seeing the large flowers of the upright Tree Peony growing atop the fleshy foliage of a Garden Peony, Mr. Itoh dedicated himself to over 2,000 attempts before his first successful cross – a victory which he never saw come into bloom. Passing away before those specimens flowered (seven years later!), like many artists before him, he did not live to see his creation gain him the success and prestige that Itoh Peonies claim today.
Now that you know the differences between the two main Peonies, let’s approach your decision from a facts-only point of view.
Location and Climate: If you live in the deep south or the far north, temperatures and humidity may rule your Peony selection. The shorter and cooler your garden season, the better you’ll do with Garden Peonies. If you live in Zones 5 - 8, you can get great results from any Peony.
Available Sunlight: While Garden Peonies need full sunlight, Itohs prefer dappled sunlight and can even tolerate part-sun. As a general rule of thumb, the farther south you live the more your garden is exposed to stronger sun and higher humidity – so while you may choose to grow more sensitive Garden Peonies, you’ll need to give them more space for increased air circulation and maybe a bit less sun than usual.
Bloom Types, Colors & Timing: You can certainly choose your Peonies by blooms alone! Itoh blooms are extra large and delicate looking, while Garden Peonies have been bred to display differing types of blooms. Generally speaking, these are more compact and fragrant, and can appear very full and fluffy. Additionally, if you have your heart set on a certain color, you may find that you’ll have more options when shopping one type over another – Itoh Peonies, for example, come in gorgeous yellows and golds, which is a trickier color to find in herbaceous Garden Peonies.
Additionally, different types of Peonies flower at different times. And you may have an opinion about that! Some folks have a particular time of year or annual event in mind that they’d like their Peonies to bloom for. Depending upon your garden zone (and season fluctuations), you can usually nail down when certain Peonies will flower.
The general rule of thumb is: Garden Peonies bloom in late spring/ early summer, while Itohs can produce blooms throughout late spring into late summer.
Price and Propagation Techniques: As you begin shopping for Peonies, you’re sure to notice that prices can be significantly different. Itohs typically cost 4 – 5 times more than Garden Peonies. If price is a deal breaker for you, stick with Garden Peonies.
However, like many people, you may be happy to pay more for the larger blooms, sturdier form, and extended bloom season that other Peonies offer. That being said, it’s always nice to know why the pricing is so very different – and in this case, it’s all about propagation techniques.
Itoh Peonies are propagated (reproduced) in two ways: naturally, via bare root cuttings from an existing plant and through tissue-culture techniques in a laboratory.
Natural cuttings are more expensive, yet are much healthier, quicker-to-flower and are easier to grow. While tissue-cultured Itohs can be cheaper, they have a reputation of being more difficult to manage and slower to bloom.
Although you can purchase potted peonies to transplant into your garden, most often, regardless of the variety you choose, you'll purchase bare root stock. Bare roots are a great choice as they generally grow more vigorously than pre-started peonies.
Learn How to Grow Peonies.