Archive for the ‘Tree Peony Care and Reference’ Category

On a recent trip to am unnamed box store for some spring renovation supplies, we were surprised to see intersectional peonies offered along with the standard spring selection of dahlia tubers and gladiolas bulbs. It was only a few years ago that intersectional peonies, hybrids between tree and herbaceous peonies, were so rare that they could only be found at specialty nurseries such as ourselves. Today, thanks to increased importation of Dutch grown intersectional peonies, they are found more frequently at less specialized nurseries and garden centers. However, as many of you know, not all peonies are equal.


Don’t be fooled by the snazzy packing of ‘their’ peony. What’s the horticultural  equivalent of ‘lipstick on a pig?’


You don’t need much gardening experience to see the stark difference in the quality of these two plants. Not only is our ‘Cora Louise‘ much bigger, it is also so much fresher and healthier. This is a what a dormant peony should look like.


We try our best to educate our customers and any interested gardener on how to successfully grow peonies. Our youtube channel has videos on planting as well as care of peonies.  If you have further questions you can always call us at (860) 283 1042 or email us at kasha@treepeony.com. We are dedicated to helping you grow beautiful peonies!

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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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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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As our herbaceous peonies enter their grand finale for 2013, we have already begun to plan our fall peony planting at Cricket Hill Garden.  Peonies are very long-lived and relatively carefree provided that they are given a good start.  Planting healthy stock is of course vital, but equally important is to amend the peony planting area so that the peony will thrive there.  Basically, this entails adjusting the soil’s pH to the proper level and adding adequate organic material to deficient soils so that the peony will be provided with long-term nourishment.  A little work now will pay you back with years of beautiful flowers.  See our youtube video on this preparing a new peony planting area.


If you are planting peonies in a new garden area, choose a location with 6 hours of sun (tree peonies will also grow well in dappled shade, but if you are planting herbaceous or intersectional ponies, select a full sun location.) The other basic requirement for peonies is a well drained site.

When planting garden bed, make sure that the soil is deep enough to accommodate a peonies extensive root system. Don't worry if the soil is rocky, just don't' plan on planting in an area with only a few inches of soil above boulder or rocky ledge.

When planting garden bed, make sure that the soil is deep enough to accommodate a peony’s extensive root system. Don’t worry if the soil is rocky, just don’t plant  in an area with only a few inches of soil above a boulder or rocky ledge.

In New England, our soils tend to be sandy and rocky, as well as low in calcium and phosphorus. In our area the native soil's pH is around 5.00, much too low for successful peony cultivation. Poor soils can be amended to improve fertility. Its always a good idea to have your soil tested so that you know your soil's baseline mineral and fertility levels. The following list of amendments suited for poor to average soils.

In New England, our soils tend to be sandy and rocky, as well as low in calcium and phosphorus. In our area the native soil’s pH is around 5.0 to 5.5, much too low for successful peony cultivation. Poor soils can be amended to improve fertility. Its always a good idea to have your soil tested so that you know your soil’s baseline mineral and fertility levels. The following list of amendments is suited for poor to average soils.

                     The following is a deluxe method for amending unimproved,  poor native soil

                      if you are creating a new planting area.

Add these soil ammendments to your planting site and you will grow amazing peonies.

Add these natural soil amendments to your planting site

We add 2 lbs each of the following soil-building amendments to our planting site sized 3′ x3′:

  • Azomite– (long term minerals and trace minerals)
  • Hi-Cal (Calcitic) Lime- For calcium, this also raises the pH of the soil, 6.5-7.0 is ideal for peony growing.
  • Colloidal Phosphate- For short-term calcium boost and slow-release phosphorus, very important for bloom production.
  • Greensand- For improving soil texture and adding potassium.

We add 1 lb. each of the amendments listed below for building high levels of humus:

  • Alfalfa meal
  • Blood meal
  • Bone char
  • These amendments can be found through suppliers like Espoma and Dr. Earth which package for the home gardener, sold online or locally at well stocked garden centers.
Mix all of your amendments together and spread them over a 3' x 3' area.

Mix all of your amendments together and spread them over a 3′ x 3′ area.

Rather than rotor-till a new planting area, we like to smother the grass and unwanted plants. By not disturbing the soil, we leave the complex web of beneficial bacteria and fungi intact.

One large wheel barrow full of finished compost achieves two goals, it adds organic material to the planting area will also smothering the unwanted grass.

One large wheel barrow full of finished compost achieves two goals, it adds organic material to the planting area and will also smother the unwanted grass.

To off the compost pile with a wheelbarrow load of mulch. We have lots of old wood chips around the garden, so we use these. You might also consider using grass clippings or leaves.

Top off the compost pile with a wheelbarrow load of mulch. We have lots of old wood chips around the garden, so we use these. You might also consider using grass clippings or leaves.

Allow the soil amendments, compost and mulch to sit over the next few months.  In the fall, when you are ready to plant, pull back the mulch and compost from the center of the pile and plant your peony there. All of the good compost and mulch will nourish the peony and get it off to a great start.

If your garden area has better soil and has been worked before, a  simpler method which will  yield good results  would be to add 1- 2 lbs Azomite and one wheelbarrow load of compost to the future planting area sized 3′ x 3′. If you know your soil is acidic, add 1-2 lbs. of ground limestone. Allow this to sit and ‘stew’ over the summer and in early fall your soil will be ready for planting.

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Spring has arrived in most of the continental United States and peonies throughout the land are starting to put out their new growth for the season. We are often asked how to distinguish between new tree peony shoots and advantageous herbaceous graft root suckers. We hope that the pictures below might help to elucidate the difference. A degree of horticultural eye is required, especially when growth is first emerging, so if you are unsure, wait until the new growth has progressed to a point where you can distinguished between the different leaf types of tree and herbaceous peonies before removing any growth.

At Cricket Hill Garden, about half of our tree peonies are propagated by root division while the other half are propagated by grafting onto herbaceous peony rootstock. Some grafted tree peonies, if not planted to a proper depth, are prone to have their herbaceous under-stock sprout, or in horticultural terms, sucker.


Herbaceous under-stock sprouting on a grafted tree peony. Note the distinctive ‘bullet’ shape of the new shoots. A new herbaceous peony shoot will always have fatter and fleshier bud than a new tree peony bud (shown in the next image). If you are unsure of what you are looking at, you can always email us a picture at crickethillgarden@gmail.com and we will do our best to help you ID the new shoots you are seeing around your tree peonies.

If the new growth around your tree peony looks like that in the above photo, you should remove it. See our past blog post, on how to do this. Before you chop out any new growth, be sure that what you are seeing is not just the tree peony sending up new stems from its own root system, as shown in the picture below.

tree peony sprouting

Own-root tree peonies and grafted tree peonies which have been planted deeply enough will send up new tree peony growth from the root system as they mature. New tree peony growth can be distinguished from herbaceous root-stock suckering its narrower profile.

If you are unsure if the new shoots which you are seeing are tree or herbaceous peony shoots, its best to wait until the first leaves appear. Tree peony leaves will be dissected, while herbaceous peony leaves are more ovate.

Tree peony leaves are highly dissected and usually have three prongs.

Tree peony leaves are highly dissected and usually have three prongs.

Herbaceous peony leaves are ovate and are never dissected.

Herbaceous peony leaves are ovate and are never dissected.

If you have any questions, about this or any other peony related topic, please email us at crickethillgarden@gmail.com.

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Early spring is the best time to prune a mature tree peony. The window to do this after the buds have begun to swell, and before new growth has commenced.

buds awakening

Prune tree peonies once the buds have begun to swell a bit. This way there is no question if a bud is alive or not.

Recommended tools are a pair of bypass pruners and a small pruning saw. Make sure they're sharp!

Recommended tools are a pair of bypass pruners and a small pruning saw. Make sure they’re sharp!


Look at the plant as a whole and identify dead wood.


a dead side branch should be cut down to the main branch

In other cases an entire side branch may die. Cut the entire dead side branch down to the main branch.

Cut down to the nearest live bud

When pruning a branch which still has some viable buds, cut down to the nearest live bud. The cut should be positioned just above the first live bud and angled down, sloping away form the bud. This allows water to more easy drain off and results in better healing.

good pruning cut

A good pruning cut. We do not coat the wood with any substance.

bad stubby prining cut

A poor pruning cut. The stub of dead wood above the bud is too long. This does not promote good healing.

Dead wood at base

After you have pruned up the upper branches, examine the base of the plant. Spindly interior growth often dies and this dead wood should be cut to the ground.

Saw large diameter stems or branches

Saw large diameter stems or branches.

spindly growth

Finally, after all the dead wood is removed, examine the plant for small and spindly growth. If the plant is vigorous and growing well, remove these very small side branches. They are usually found in the interior of the plant. They will not flower and will only inhibit air circulation.

Remove pruning from garden, could potentially harbor fungal spoors.

Lastly, remove all pruning from garden, they could potentially harbor fungal spores.

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We have long known that many of our customers have had success growing peonies in the warmer parts of USDA zone 8 and 9. However due to the extreme and unprecedented conditions seen in some areas of these zones in the last two years, we recently contacted some very experienced growers in these parts of the country for some concrete advice on getting peonies to thrive there.

If you grow any types of peonies in zone 8 or 9 and would like to add to our growing advice, we would love to hear from you!

Growing Peonies in Dallas, TX (USDA zone 8)

Typical bloom time: Late February to early March for tree peonies. Herbaceous peonies begin to flower around April 1st.

Recommend types of peonies to grow: Growers have had success with all types of peonies, tree, herbaceous and intersectional. (Intersectional peonies are also known as itoh hybrids.)

The last two brutal summers have had extreme weather conditions.  In the 2011 drought and 2012’s unprecedented heat wave, all plants have suffered.

One gardener reported that over the last two summers, many plants in her well established gardens failed to survive the stress. These include hydrangeas, modern rose hybrids, and some tree peonies.  Tree peonies which had thrived for 6-7 years in the ground died due to drought related stress.  However, this very experienced gardener reported that her ‘Snow Lotus‘ tree peony has done exceptionally well despite the drought. In fact, she said that it is the only tree peony which she would unequivocally recommend for gardeners in her area. Her specimen is nearing 10 years old, is 4.5’ tall and produced 26 blossoms last year.

The rockii tree peony 'Snow Lotus' has proven to be a very reiable grower in Texas over the last few drought striken years.

The rockii tree peony ‘Snow Lotus‘ has proven to be a very reliable grower in Texas over the last few drought stricken years.

It makes sense that ‘Snow Lotus,’ which is a cultivated variety of the wild species Paeonia rockii is more drought and stress tolerant that other types of tree peonies which have been hybridized under more favorable growing conditions. The native range of P. rockii is northwestern China, particularly in Gansu province, a very arid region which averages just 12” of rain a year! This is less than half of the rainfall which Dallas, TX received in the drought of 2011.

This picture was taken in May in the countryside outside Lanzhou city in China's northwestern Gansu province. This is the native habitat of the tree peony species P. rockii.

This picture was taken in May in the countryside outside Lanzhou city in China’s northwestern Gansu province. This is the native habitat of the tree peony species P. rockii.


Tree peonies being irrigated in the spring in Gansu province, China.

Growers in hot, arid parts of the country interested in growing tree peonies are then recommended to consider the rockii or Gansu Chinese tree peonies. Some of our favorites include: Cup of Shining Night, Black Tornado, Blue Jade in Three Colors, Purple Butterfly in the Wind and Pink Lotus.

Herbaceous peonies do not pose any special challenges and are widely grown in this area.

Best planting time: Either November-December,  or late January- February.

Site Selection: Its best to plant peonies in warmer climates so that they receive a little protection against very hot summer afternoon sun. As we recommend for all planting zones, morning sun and afternoon shade is ideal. If this is not possible, than plant peonies near a large shrub so that they are afforded a little protection from the very hot sun.

Watering: In spring and summer, at least two deep waterings a week with supplemental drinks in between as necessary. This is doubly important for newly planted peonies.

Pests and Diseases: Nothing significant.

Other tips: Remove any remaining tree peony leaves in the beginning of November. For herbaceous peonies, cut foliage to the ground at this time as well.

When planting herbaceous peonies make sure that the ‘eyes’ or buds are basically at the surface with only a very lite layer of soil or mulch covering them.

Peonies in Northern California (USDA zone  8b to 9)

Typical bloom time: The following detailed bloom sequence was observed over the course of a decade in Sebastopol, CA .

  • P. tenuifolia and assocaited hybrids such as ‘Early Scout‘ bloom in  late February to early March
  • Chinese tree peonies in mid-March
  • Japanese  tree peonies and P. lutea  in early April
  • P. lactiflora type herbaceous peonies from mid-May to early June.

Recommend types of peonies to grow: Consult a detailed zone map, such as Sunset’s Magazine garden zone guide for more accurately determining your planting zone. This index is much more detailed than the USDA’s zones. For instance, both San Francisco and  Sebastopol, CA are both classified as USDA zone 8. However, while tree and interesectional peonies do well in San Francisco without any special attention, herbaceous peonies are a challenge there. Just a little north, and still within the same USDA planting zone in Sebastopol.  In addition to tree and intersectional peonies, the majority of herbaceous peonies are proven to grow very well, with the exception of some very late season varieties.

We have heard from a gardener who has good success growing the earlier blooming types of herbaceous peonies in San Francisco. Her trick is to empty a bag of ice on top of her dormant plants once a week in December and early January. This gives the plants the necessary chill time to bloom.

Best planting time:  late November to early February.

Site Selection: Planting in a half-sun/half shade location is ideal. In sunnier locations, peony leaves will become scalded in the summer.

In the warmer areas of zone 9, work with micro-climates within your garden to find cooler planting areas. Planting in cold air pockets such as at the base of hills can extend the growing range.

Watering:  In zone 8b one or two deep waterings per week in the summer as necessary. Take special care of newly planted peonies.

In the warmer parts of zone 9,  late spring, summer and early autumn irrigation is required. This is best accomplished by hand or drip irrigation at approximately one gallon per plant every other day with good drainage. Mulching aids in decreasing evaporation loss.

Pests and Diseases: March rain can cause botrytis outbreaks. Based on the amount of rain, several treatments with either Actionovate or copper-sulfate may be necessary.

Gophers do not eat peony roots, however they will eat nearly every other root in the garden. Their tunnels can damage peony roots.

Other tips: Force dormancy on intersectional and herbaceous peonies by cutting them to the ground in November. Remove any remaining leaves for tree peonies at this time as well, be careful not to cut the woody stems, remove only the leaves and leaf stems. Trimming the leaves off  mimics the deciduous leaf drop in colder areas and cycles the plant into producing new flower buds. Peonies must have a rest period without foliage.

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A few months ago we wrote about how to identify the herbaceous peony understock sprouting on a grafted tree peony.  This is usually the result of the grafted tree peony being planted too shallowly.  Now that the season for transplanting peonies has arrived, it’s time to dig up and remove unwanted herbaceous understock as well as replant the tree peony. It is necessary to do this because if left unchecked, the herbaceous peony can eventually overpower and choke out the tree peony. If you do like the way the herbaceous understock blooms, you can replant this and let it grow out.

If you have a tree-herbaceous chimera peony, now is the time to dig it up, remove the unwanted herbaceous peony suckers and replant the tree peony deeply enough so that it will grow its own roots on which it will thrive for many years to come.

Tree peony leaves are easily distinguished from those of herbaceous peonies. Tree peonies are dissected and three pronged, while herbaceous peony leaves are elliptical and pointed.

If you are unsure about the difference of the leaves, you can always check the stems. tree peonies are woody, while herbaceous are green.

Remove the leaves before digging up and peony. Dispose of these in a hot compost pile or outside of the garden least they spread harmful fungus throughout the garden.

The best method for digging up a large peony is to do it carefully. Being by digging around the circumference of the plant, about 18” away from the drip line. Then remove some of the soil from around the roots, lastly gently ease the plant out of the ground.

This plant had a smaller root system the anticipated.

The majority of this plants roots are herbaceous peony roots, it has very few tree peony roots. The herbaceous peony’s ‘eyes’ are the small white buds which have formed at the bottom of this year’s herbaceous stems.

Because this plant has so few tree peony roots, to remove all the herbaceous roots now would kill or weaken the tree peony. Best now to remove the herbaceous peony ‘eyes’ by trimming these pink or white buds. Replant the tree peony deeply so that it can grow its own roots over the next few years. Plant the tree peony about 4” above the graft union, or where the herbaceous peony roots begin. Take this opportunity to properly amend the soil for the tree peony. Place a shovel full or two of compost in the planting hole. As you back fill, mix in a cup of limestone dust if your soil is acidic. Mix in a few more shovel fulls of compost as you fill in the hole, mixing in a cup of Azomite to give the plant a mineral boost.

As you back fill, water in the soil/compost mix so that it settles well around the roots. Tamp down the soil and top dress with a shovel full of compost if you still have some handy. Newly planted, or replanted peonies should be mulched for their first winter in the ground to help prevent the soil around the roots freezing and thawing suddenly and heaving the roots above ground.

Tree peonies can be transplanted anytime now from now until early November in our USDA zone 6. The most important thing is to make sure that the roots do not dry out while out of the ground. Remember to plant in a sunny, well drained location, with rich soil and a pH of at least 6.5.

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Some of our favorite tree peonies we grow here at Cricket Hill Garden are hybrids of the wild species Paeonia rockii, also know as Gansu Mudan. This species of tree peony grows predominantly in Northwest China. The area around Lanzhou city in Gansu province is particularly known as a center for the breeding and propagation of P. rockii. We imported our first rockii tree peonies about fifteen years ago and were immediately enchanted. With their finely cut foliage and erect habit (mature specimens reach to well over 6′), P. rockii hybrids make for quite a regal planting. The blossoms are nothing short of spectacular, large and fragrant they are found in a range of colors, all sporting dark magenta flares at the base of each petal.

Snow Lotus is closely related to the wild species P. rockii.

Cup of Shining Night is one of our favorite P. rockii hybrids developed by Chen Dezhong of the Peony Peace Garden in China’s Gansu Province.

Over the years, we have noticed that our tree peonies with P. rockii heritage are much more likely to go into early dormancy during the late summer. With much of the county experiencing very hot and dry weather this summer, we have heard from many customers who have noticed that their P. rockii tree peonies leaves have turned brown and shriveled. This of course happens to all tree peonies as they drop their leaves and go into dormancy. Typically this occurs in early October here in Connecticut, however it seems to happen much earlier to P. rockii tree peonies during drier years. We have also noticed that P. rockii planted in the full sun loose their leaves much earlier than those planted in conditions of dappled or partial sunlight.

This P. rockii hybrid receives full morning sun but is shaded in the afternoon. It still retains most of its foliage, though some has begun to turn brown.

This P. rockii receives almost no direct sun and still has very green leaves. One of the great advantages of P. rockii is that they will grow and bloom well in more shade than other types of tree peonies. A shaded planting location like this more closely mimics the natural location in which P. rockii grows in the wild.

The effect of the strong summer sun on the foliage is clearly shown in this picture. Notice the brown and yellow leaves on the right side of the tree peony. This side receives full morning sun. The deep green foliage on the shrubs left side faces west but is shaded by tall trees and receives no direct afternoon sun.

The most extreme case. This P. rockii has had its leaves totally fried by the hot summer sun. It is planted in a full sun location in our garden.

Once the old leaves are removed, its clear that this plant has set good buds for next year. We do not find that early onset dormancy has any significant effect on overall plant performance. If your rockii tree peony has already gone into dormancy, remove the leaves and dispose of them in a hot, regularly turned compost pile or outside of the garden.

Planted only a few feet from the rockii shown in the previous picture is another Chinese tree peony which still retains most of its foliage. This particular plant is ‘Flying Swallow in a Red Dress’ and is a member of the Central Plains cultivar group. This type of tree peony is much farther removed by centuries of cultivation and selection from any of the wild species tree peonies than P. rockii hybrids. In our experience the foliage of the Central Plains cultivars holds up very well to full summer sun and drier conditions.

Though we have been grown tree peonies for almost a quarter century here at Cricket Hill, we continue to learn so much about these fascinating plants every season. In the future we plan to recommend that customers site their P. rockii tree peonies in locations that do not receive full sun all day. This is particularity true for growers in regions with hot summers were rainfall can be lacking.

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High summer has arrived at Cricket Hill Garden. We feel ourselves very fortunate to have thus far been spared the punishing drought which has stricken much of the central and western Unites States. The July rains in northwestern Connecticut have allowed the summer perennials to fully develop and come into bloom. Some of these, such as the butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) are even a bit too exuberant and need to be trimmed back. Overall though, our summer garden aesthetic is one of only mildly controlled exuberance and boundless fecundity. It invites the wanderer to explore semi-obscured garden paths, to stumble upon a hidden clump of Cone flower (Echinacea purpurea) attended by a swallow tail butterfly and maybe meet a nymph or two before the winding paths eventually lead out of the colorful thicket. We know this style of gardening is not for everyone; well manicured perennials and straight lines are nowhere to be found.

A summer splendor of (from left to right): clumping bamboo Fargesia nitida, butterfly bushes Buddleia davidii , phlox, milk weed and the luminous glass sculptures of Mundy Hepburn.

A mix of perennials and annuals fill the empty spaces between the tree peonies in this terrace; perilla, anise hyssop and artemesia.

It is important that the area immediately around peonies be free from obstruction. Full sun ensures good bud development for next year while good air circulation goes a long way in helping to prevent fungal infections from taking hold. Full sun on tree peonies will show some sun scald this time of year, as evident in the foreground, with some yellowing of the foliage.

Our native Goldenrod Solidago ssp., usually classified as a “weed” has a place in the summer palette with phlox. The swirling bronze sculpture is by Nancy Linkin.

See more beautiful sculpture at www.nancylinkin.com

Tree peonies with some high shade in summer with retain the rich green color of the foliage.

A variety of native flowering perennials attract many different species of butterflies to the summer garden. These tree peonies are happy to coexist with the anise hyssop and echinacea.

Tree peony seeds will be ready to be harvest in a couple more weeks. The pods are still too green and the seeds inside are not yet ready.

For herbaceous peonies, we like to leave at least 3 feet between plantings. This allows for summer interplanting of smaller annuals and perennials, so you have a long season of interest.

The boundary between embracing a “bountiful and fertile” aesthetic and total abandon is a very fine one….

A surprise plant in the east garden. We are not sure what this is. Likely planted from seed in 2011. Bloomed for the first time. Do you know it? We’d love to hear from you.

What does your summer garden look like? How do you interplant perennials and annuals with your peonies? We would love to hear and see your photos. You can post to our facebook page.

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