Herbaceous Peonies

Give your yard a shot of color with one of the most long-lived perennials: herbaceous peonies.
By: Julie A Martens
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Botanical Names: Chinese peony (Paeonia lactiflora)

Grow herbaceous peonies, one of the most enduring garden perennials, and you’ll savor a lush flower show each spring. These cherished perennials come in a rainbow of colors. You can grow white peonies, yellow peonies, pink peonies and several other hues. Herbaceous peonies open blossoms in a variety of forms and at different times in spring. By mixing and matching different types of herbaceous peonies, you can enjoy a long season of colorful, interesting flowers.

Botanically speaking, herbaceous peonies go by the name Paeonia lactiflora. Sometimes they’re called Chinese or common peony. These plants have soft, green stems that die to the ground in fall. In this way, herbaceous peony growth is similar to an annual plant in that nothing survives the winter. Herbaceous peonies reveal their perennial nature when, in spring, new green stems emerge from the underground tubers and ultimately form a full, bushy plant and flowers.

Herbaceous peonies typically grow from 2 to 4 feet tall. They form a shrubby mound in the landscape with dark green leaves and pretty flowers. The blooms appear during the window where spring transitions to summer. Herbaceous peonies usually strut their stuff as spring bulb flowers are fading and before summer perennials kick into gear.

The flower show on any specific peony typically lasts for a week to 10 days. That may seem short, but by including a mix of early-, mid- and late-flowering varieties, you can extend the blossom fest to nearly six weeks. Individual herbaceous peonies live for 50 years—or more.They’re a perennial that can grace a garden with color for generations.

Herbaceous peonies are undemanding in the garden. For established plants, ongoing care is minimal. The most important tasks are staking plants in spring, before large blossoms weigh down stems. Each fall, it’s vital to remove spent stems and dispose of them. This keeps pests and diseases in check.

Although they’re hardy in Zones 3 to 8, herbaceous peonies don’t thrive in the more southerly reaches of Zone 8. They need a strong winter chill to flower at their best. For best success, Southern gardeners should grow early-flowering single herbaceous peony varieties.

To coax the best flower show from your herbaceous peonies, place them in a spot that receives at least five hours of full sun each day. For gardeners in the South and West, plant peonies where they’ll receive afternoon shade. Protecting flowers from the strongest sun each day helps them last longer.

Herbaceous peonies usually take about three years to reach their flowering potential. The luscious blossoms make wonderful cut flowers and provide long-lasting indoor color in the vase. For the longest show indoors, snip flowering stems before buds are fully open. The best time to cut peony flowers is at what’s known as the marshmallow stage. At this stage, the bud should be opening and showing some petal color, and it should feel like a marshmallow if you give it the gentlest of squeezes.

In the landscape, use herbaceous peonies to line a walk or driveway. Include them in mixed planting beds with shrubs and other perennials. Deer don’t usually bother herbaceous peonies, so they make a good choice for deer-resistant planting designs.

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