Archive for February, 2014

Among the three types of peonies- tree, herbaceous and intersectional, there are a variety of growth habits. Along with sun requirements, the mature form of a given variety is an important consideration when planning to add a peony to your garden.


Tree peony form are classified as upright, spreading and semi-spreading.

Tree peonies, like other woody perennials, are comprised of a thicket of stems which emerge out of the ground from the root system.  Tree peony growth habits are categorized according to the angle at which the branches grow relative to the ground.

Upright form tree peonies

Upright form tree peony blooming in Beijing, China. Note how the yearly growth has been removed so the majestic woody structure of the plant is clearly visible.

Upright form tree peony Sichuan Peach Blossom, blooming in Beijing, China. Note how the lower leaf  growth has been removed so the majestic woody structure of the plant is clearly visible.

Upright form tree peonies tend to be vigorous varieties with comparatively long annual growth. Stems and branches grow upwards, at a narrow angle to the ground. The example shown here ( Sichuan Peach Blossom) is about 6 ft. tall and 6 ft. wide, and has been pruned of lower leaves and small branches to allow an uncluttered, open form of the shrub.

Tree peonies with this growth habit include: most cultivars in the Chinese rockii and Japanese groups, some Central Plains Chinese and hybrid tree peonies.  Final mature height will vary between 4.5 to 7 ft., depending on the cultivar. In our plant descriptions, we do include the mature height of our cultivars.

Landscape uses: Tree peonies with upright growth habits make excellent display plants. Do not be intimidated by the height, keep in mind that tree peonies are slow growing plants which take 10-15 years to reach their mature size. Vigorous cultivars can also be kept smaller with yearly pruning. Grow in USDA zones 4-9, with at least 5-6 hours of sunlight.


The Sun 太阳 Taiyo Japanese tree peony


Phoenix White 风丹白 Feng Dan Bai Chinese tree peony


High Noon hybrid American tree peony


Luoyang Red 洛阳红 Luo Yang Hong Chinese tree peony. This plant would be well served with a pruning to remove some of the interior, crowded growth.

Spreading form tree peonies

Color of Eternity wan shi sheng se Chinese tree peony.

Color of Eternity 万世生色 Wan Shi Sheng Se is a good example of a spreading form tree peony.

The branches of the spreading form tree peonies expand out diagonally to the ground, so that the plant width is much greater than the height. This type seems slower growing than upright habit tree peonies.  At maturity, tree peonies with spreading growth habit measure between 2.5-3 ft. tall and 3-5 ft. wide.

Tree peonies with this growth habit include:  Some Central Plains cultivar group of Chinese tree peonies (includes many of the historic Chinese varieties), some hybrid tree peonies.

Landscape placement: Mixed perennial border or foundation planting. Also very attractive planted on a raised terrace which allows for easy viewing of downward facing flowers. Ideal for smaller gardens. Grow in USDA zones 4-9, with at least 5-6 hours of sunlight.

Necklace with Precious Pearls

Necklace with Precious Pearls 璎珞宝珠 Ying Luo Bao Zhu Chinese tree peony

Zhao's Pink

Zhao’s Pink 赵粉 Zhao Fen Chinese tree peony

Peach Blossom Complexion

Peach Blossom Complexion 粉面桃花 Fen Mian Tao Hua Chinese tree peony

Semi-spreading form tree peonies

Gold Sand

Gold Sand in a Black Ocean 黑海撒金 Hei Hai Sa Jin is a Chinese tree peony with a semi-spreading form.

The semi-spreading growth habit is characterized as being an intermediate between the upright and the spreading types.  Typically dimensions at maturity are between 3-4 ft. tall and 3-5 ft. wide.

Tree peonies with this growth habit include: All cultivar groups of tree peonies have some varieties which can be classified as having a semi-spreading growth habit. The majority of hybrid tree peonies are semi-spreading.

Landscape placement: Very versatile, can be used as either a focal specimen plant or as part of a more diverse garden setting in a mixed shrub and perennial border. Grows  in USDA zones 4-9,  requires 5-6 hours of sun to bloom well. Tree peonies will grow in full sun, but the flowers fade more quickly. Morning sun, afternoon shade is ideal.

Coral Terrace

Coral Terrace 珊瑚台 Shan Hu Tai Chinese tree peony

Big Deep Purple

Big Deep Purple 大棕紫 Da Zong Zi Chinese tree peony

Species Herbaceous Peonies

P. japonica remains a small plant even when mature. This photo was taken at the New York Botanical Garden.

P. japonica remains a small plant even at maturity. This photo was taken at the New York Botanical Garden.

There are approximately 25 species of herbaceous peonies which can be found in the wild over a wide swath of Eurasia, from the Mediterranean to Japan. They are lower growing plants, between 1 to 2.5 ft. tall.  Some species, like P. japonica, remain small plants which will not exceed more than 1.5 ft. wide.  Others, like P. macrophylla will become large clumps with time, up to 3 ft. wide.

Landscape use: Some species, like P. japonica are ideal for the shady margin between the deciduous forest and the garden. Other species require full sun. All add delicate color to the early spring garden. Be aware that many species peonies will have their foliage die back in the heat of summer.


P. officinalis,  this central Asian species of herbaceous peony will reach 20 inches tall and form a large spreading clump when mature.

Lactiflora type Herbaceous Peonies

Variteies of P. lactiflora account for many of the best known herbaceous peonies.

Varieties of P. lactiflora account for many of the best known herbaceous peonies. This particular one is a Cricket Hill Garden seedling.

Cultivated varieties of P. lactiflora account for the vast majority of herbaceous peonies in commerce. This species, which is native to China, forms a tall, upright bush, generally 3.5 ft. tall and wide. Some are single form flowers, while others are fully double form.  Some cultivars are weak stemmed and require support, while others have markedly stronger stems. We have test grown more than 150 herbaceous peony cultivars in 25 years and have discarded many because their stems are too weak. We select out the better peonies to propagate and sell, those with vigor and good stems, fragrance, unique form and color.

Landscape uses: Devoted beds or borders.  A widely adaptable garden favorite for generations,  used in mixed perennial borders with at least six hours of sunlight, to a full day of sun. Will grow in USDA zones 3-8.  Some herbaceous peonies will grow and bloom in zone 9, but must be planted just below the soil surface.  Difficult to establish in zone 9 due to dryness and lack of winter dormancy.

Some cultivars of P. lactiflora herbacoeus peonies were selected for flower size alone.  Such varieties have a dendency to droop down. They make excellent cut flowers but are less desirable for landscape plantings.

Some cultivars of P. lactiflora herbaceous peonies were selected for flower size alone. Sarah Bernhardt has a tendency to droop down. They make excellent cut flowers but are less desirable for landscape plantings.

Hybrid Herbaceous Peonies

'Lois' Choice'

‘Lois’ Choice’ is a compact growing plant, reaching 2′ tall and about 3′ wide.

Hybrid herbaceous peonies are the result of crosses between different peony species. Sizes within this broad group are quite variable, between 2.5-4.5’ tall and 2.5-3.5’ wide. Many of these hybrids were first created in America, in the mid-t0-late 20th century.

Landscape uses: The wide range of flowering times and diverse plant habit make these widely adaptable landscape plants. Many of the new hybrids have been selected with an eye for stunning flowers as well as good stem strength. Used in mixed perennial borders with at least six hours of sunlight, to a full day of sun. Will grow in USDA zones 3-8.  Some herbaceous peonies will grow and bloom in zone 9, but must be planted just below the soil surface.  Difficult to establish in zone 9 due to dryness and lack of winter dormancy.

'Early Windflower'

‘Early Windflower’ has good height and spread, about 3′ tall and 4′ wide.

Intersectional or ‘itoh’ hybrid peonies

These are hybrids between tree and herbaceous peonies. Well formed bushes grow to 3-4 ft. tall and wide.

'Court Jester' intersectional peony

‘Court Jester’ intersectional peony

Landscape uses: Well suited for mixed perennial borders or foundation plantings. The plants require 6 hours or more of sunlight.  The foliage is attractive from early spring to the hard frost. The foliage will die back in late autumn and is cut down, to re-emerge in the spring. Clumps get larger over time. For USDA zones 4-9.

Lower growing intersectional peonies make good foundation plantings.

Lower growing intersectional peonies make good foundation plantings. The yellow flower in the foreground is Garden Treasure.

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flying dragon tree

The cold hardiest citrus is an interesting addition to the northern edible landscape. At Cricket Hill Garden, we have sturdy 2-3 year old seedlings, organically grown (non-certified), available for spring and fall shipping.

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Peonies bloom in a wide range of forms, from simple, elegant singles to massive doubles with more than 300 petals. In China, where the peony has been cultivated for over 2000 years, growers have developed a rather complex system for classifying tree and herbaceous peony blossom shapes. Peony culture has a much shorter history in Europe and the United States. The system used by American growers to classify peony flower shapes is less specific than that used in China. At Cricket Hill Garden, we try to use the Chinese system for classification of flower forms. We feel that it is a better tool for recording the nuances between different cultivars. While a shorthand of single, semi-double and double is perfectly adequate for understanding the basic difference in peony flower forms, the Chinese system is for connoisseur gardeners with a well developed appreciation for the subtleties of the nature of the flowers.

Its somewhat akin to drinking tea or wine; while a black Lipton’s teabag is fine, and Mondavi is drinkable, others find joy in the perfect blend of a select plantation tea or discovering a new 90 point expert’s vintage.

Historically in China the preference amongst gardeners seems to have been for extravagant double blossoms. We have had experience growing these over the past 25 years and some of them are very difficult to bloom in the true form. The soil and nutrients have to be in balance, a double form flower will not perform well in less than optimal soil.

Over the last several decades, Chinese peony breeders have made many newer introductions of flowers with lighter, more open forms.  The vast majority of Japanese peonies are single or semi-double. American growers have largely adopted the lighter form preference, dismissing large double blossoms as “ungainly.” As a result most hybrid tree peonies selected by America breeders for propagation are single or semi-double form.

American gardeners, however have a continued devotion to large flowered double herbaceous peonies. Despite their weak stems, the big ‘poufy’ peony is still a favorite. What we have tried to do in our trials is select the best growing habits of the hundreds of peonies we have tried. When we recommend a tree or herbaceous peony, it is because we know it performs well, blooms easily and will have more than adequate stem strength. That is why you see a very discriminating ‘edit’ of our peony offerings, we want the best performers as well as the most stunning forms and colors.

The flower forms on the chart and the examples that follow show some of the best cultivars in each category.


The classical Chinese system for identifying peony flower forms.

Note the definitions of the forms as well as examples of peonies which bloom in the given form.

Single: 1-3 layers of petals that are large, wide and flat. Stamens and   pistils are exposed. These flowers are normally fertile.


Cup of Shining Night‘ 夜光杯 Ye Guang Bei Chinese Rockii tree peony

phoenix white

Phoenix White‘ 风丹白 Feng Dan Bai Chinese tree peony

pk jade

‘Pink Jade’ 粉玉 Fen Yu Chinese herbaceous peony

empress wu's yellow

Empress Wu’s Yellow Peony Heaven hybrid herbaceous peony

Lotus (semi-double): Large and close fitting petals in 4-5 slightly overlapping layers forming the shape of a lotus flower. Both stamens and pistils are exposed.

Jade Plate White Yu Ban Bai

Yu Ban’s White‘ 玉班白 Yu Ban Bai Chinese tree peony

murmatsu cherry

Muramatsu Cherry 村松樱 Muramatsu Zakura Japanese tree peony

Big Deep Purple

Big Deep Purple‘ 大棕紫 Da Zong Zi Chinese tree peony

high noon

High Noon‘ American Lutea hybrid tree peony

Chrysanthemum (semi-double): Counting 6 layers of petals which gradually decrease in size towards the center. Stamens can be normal, or somewhat petaloid (where the stamens become petals). Pistils are normal.


Minnie Shaylor‘ American herbaceous peony


Multi-Colored Butterfly 花蝴蝶 Hua Hu Die Chinese tree peony

garden treasure

Garden Treasure (Hollingsworth) Intersectional ‘itoh’ hybrid peony

Rose (semi-double): Counting 6 layers of petals, which are usually larger than the chrysanthemum form. Petals are larger on the outside than on the inside. Stamens and pistils are somewhat or mostly petaloid.

'Bartzella' (Anderson, 1986). This blossom measured over 9'' in diameter!

Bartzella‘ (Anderson, 1986) intersectional ‘itoh’ hybrid peony. This blossom measured over 9” in diameter!

Luoyang Red Luoyang Hong

Luoyang Red 洛阳红 Luoyang Hong Chinese tree peony

hibiscus with a pk complex

‘Hibiscus with a Pink Complexion’ 肉芙蓉 Ru Fu Rong Chinese tree peony


‘Twin Beauty’ 二桥 Er Qiao Chinese tree peony

Anemone (double): 2-3 outer layers of wide and straight petals. Stamens are completely petaloid and have become small narrow petals. Pistils are either normal or reduced. Under the American system of classification, this form is known as “Japanese.”

'Purple Phoenix Feather' Zi Feng Yu 紫鳳羽

Purple Phoenix Feather Zi Feng Yu 紫鳳羽 Chinese herbaceous peony

dragons nest

‘Dragons Nest’ American herbaceous peony


Philomele French herbaceous peony

Hundred Proliferate (double): Many- layered double, having the appearance of two merged and overlapping flowers. This is a common form, with many lactiflora type herbaceous peonies falling into this category.

riches and honor

Riches and Honor‘ 大富贵 Da Fu Gui Chinese herbaceous peony


Black Dragon Holds a Splendid Flower‘ 乌龙捧盛 Wu Long Peng Sheng Chinese tree peony


‘Flying Swallow in a Red Dress’ 飞燕红装 Fei Yan Hong Zhuang Chinese tree peony

cinnibar phoenix

Cinnabar Phoenix 丹凤 Dan Feng Chinese herbaceous peony

Golden Circle (double): 2-3 outer layers of large petals. Most of the stamens are petaloid, but a ring of normal stamens remains and has the appearance of a golden circle between the narrow interior petals and the wide outer petals.

This is a rather uncommon form, though many of the more complex double flowers will bloom in this form when young or when not adequately fertilized.

yellow with big leaves

Yellow with Big Leaves 大叶黄 Da Ye Huang Chinese tree peony

Thousand Petal Crown (double): Wide and expansive outer petals. Stamens are completely petaloid and usually have the appearance of becoming larger from the exterior to the interior of the flower. The center of the flower is raised.

Historically, this was by far the most popular flower form in China. Many, though not all, of the cultivars which bloom in this form have flowers which are so large and heavy that they are side-facing, or down-facing. This does not mean they are all hidden flowers, they bloom from the side view rather than on top of the plant.

fragrant jade

‘Fragrant Jade’ 香玉 Xiang Yu Chinese tree peony

'Color of Eternity'

Color of Eternity‘ 万世生色 Wan Shi Sheng Se Chinese tree peony

yao's yellow

‘Yao’s Yellow’ 姚黄 Yao Huang Chinese tree peony

'Luster of Jade' Jing Yu

‘Luster of Jade’ 景玉 Jing Yu Chinese tree peony

Hydrangea Globular (double): All stamens are completely petaloid with shapes and sizes similar to those of normal petals. Pistils are petaloid or reduced. These flowers are said to resemble hydrangea blossoms are well as xiuqiu, embroidered silk balls which are a traditional handicraft in parts of China.

This is a rarely encountered form. Cultivars which bloom in this shape require optimal growing conditions to do so because the flowers are so large.


Pure Red Gold‘ 大红赤金 Da Hong Chi Jin Chinese herbaceous peony

There are some peony shapes which do not fit neatly into the above categories. An example is the “lion’s mane” form of tree peony blossom which was very popular in Japan in the 19th century. These flowers are typically semi-double and ruffled. These shaggy flowers are not as popular today and rarely seen in commerce.

'White Jade Lion' 白玉獅子 Hakuojishi is a variety which is said to bloom in the 'lion's main' form.

‘White Jade Lion’ 白玉獅子 Hakuojishi is a variety which is said to bloom in the ‘lion’s mane’ form.


Blue Jade in Three Colors‘ 蓝玉三彩 Lan Yu San Cai Chinese rockii tree peony blooming in both its mature and immature flower form.

Peonies which do not have access to adequate nutrition will not bloom up to their potential.  Flowers on poorly fertilized plants will be smaller and simpler than their true form.

Peonies show alternate shapes and will often not bloom in their mature form when young. This is especially true of the more complex forms of tree peonies. The mature age for a tree peony is usually considered to be about ten years old.

Many of the full flower forms we offer now will bloom well by 5-6 years of age. We have discarded hundreds of peonies as too slow to bloom or too difficult to grow over the past 25 years. What we offer in 2014 is a result of the many years of trial growing here in Connecticut.

yao hung

Yao’s Yellow, blooming in an incomplete form with missing petals.

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