Tree Peonies and herbaceous peonies are long term plants.

A tree peony in full bloom is dazzling.

Another tree peony that will brighten the garden.

There are quite a few plants that I miss after downsizing. I have previously mentioned camellias and several productive citrus trees are missed too. Also missing at my new home are tree peonies (Paeonia suffructicosa) and herbaceous peonies (Paeonia lactiflora). The tree peonies were pretty special. When I first moved to my former home in 1976, I found an old tree peony that was in a bad spot, so I moved it to a better location and enjoyed its dark red blooms for 40 years as well as those of others that I added to the peony patch.

Tree peonies are magnificent, long-lived woody shrubs that enhance any gardener’s joy. They provide structure in the garden and the foliage is bronze in early spring, dark green in summer and bronze to purple in the fall. They can reach 4 to 6 feet in height and are capable of bearing fragrant flowers up to ten inches in diameter. They are the most popular flower in China and once were grown exclusively for the emperor.

Many tree peonies for sale are grafted clones of popular varieties. Tree peonies can be started from seed, but with difficulty and I have never mastered the technique involved although I did have one grow from self-seeding. Many peonies purveyors often sell tree peony seeds in addition to plants, so it can be done. I had a good friend and neighbor, John, who mastered growing them from seeds. He planted seeds annually and when they started to bloom, which occurred about 3 years later, he would sell them. John never knew what colors or kind of flowers the seeds would produce until the first bloom. I was an eager buyer and he once gave me one that I always cherished in his memory as he is no longer with us.

The bees love these tree peonies along with gardeners.

I planted a patch of my garden with several tree peonies and got to enjoy their transient beauty each spring. Rain and wind are the enemies of the large vulnerable blooms, so I always wanted good weather during the bloom time which is relatively short. Fortunately, I took lots of pictures so I can still enjoy them in my old age.

Here are some tips on growing tree peonies. Some afternoon shade and dappled shade is best, but they can handle full sun. A well-drained, rich soil that is neutral to slightly alkaline is preferred; so most local soils will work. Fertilizing can be a top dressing in the spring with an inch of compost or aged manure. Some shelter from wind is advisable to protect blooms in the spring and where they will be protected against drying winds. Tree Peonies are very drought tolerant once established and should not be overwatered.

Pruning is fairly minimal and should be done in February when buds start to swell. Dead shoots should come off and remove dead material back to lower live buds. Often there is die-back of last year’s flowering shoot, hence the need to prune back to live buds. Also prune out any wayward shoots that are horizontal and not upright.

Companion plants that work well with tree peonies are snowdrop bulbs (Leucojem aestivum), Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica), Scilla bulbs (Scilla siberica) and perhaps some early blooming Narcissus around the edges of the tree peony patch such as paperwhites or small daffodils. Heucheras, violets, and Hellebores will also work to provide variety.  I planted a crepe myrtle in the middle of my tree peonies which provided color from summer to fall.

Herbaceous peonies make a nice fragrant border to this patio.

At the old homestead, there was also a row of Herbaceous Peonies. I enjoyed their large pink blossoms every spring. Herbaceous peonies require a cool winter climate, well drained, loamy soil, good air circulation and sunshine. They are best planted in the fall so they can develop the root system and storage of nutrients for spring growth. They are deer proof as are tree peonies, so both are good candidate for foothill gardens. These are long-lived perennials and can bloom with single or double flowers in colors from pure white to deep red. The cut flowers are often fragrant and will last for a week if cut at full bud stage. Unlike tree peonies, herbaceous peonies are cut to the ground in the winter or early spring. For a look at companion plants to use with herbaceous peonies see: http://www.enchantedgardensdesign.com/blog/2018/6/5/peony-partners.

Intersectional or Itoh peonies are hybrids of tree peonies and herbaceous peonies. They are short, strong-stemmed, require no support and make excellent cut flowers. They bloom about 3 weeks after herbaceous peonies bloom. Hybridization has resulted in gold and yellow blooms not seen in herbaceous peonies. The Itoh peonies are pruned to the ground each winter like herbaceous peonies. So—be a happy gardener and enjoy glorious peonies.

If you have a gardening related question you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112. More information can be found on our website:  http://sjmastergardeners.ucanr.edu/CONTACT_US/

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