Peony Varieties and Types

Learn about different types of peonies, including heirloom peonies.
By: Julie A Martens
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Botanical Names: tree peony (Paeonia suffruticosa), Chinese peony (Paeonia lactiflora)

Explore the world of peony varieties, and you’ll discover that classic herbaceous peonies (Paeonia lactiflora), also known as Chinese peonies, are just the tip of the iceberg. Several other types of peonies exist, including tree peonies (Paeonia suffruticosa) and intersectional peonies, which are also known as Itoh hybrids.

Different types of peonies bring various attributes to the garden scene. Herbaceous peonies are the more traditional garden peony that’s well-recognized and beloved for its blousy blooms and beautiful fragrance. This peony type typically flowers during the transition period from spring into summer. Of the various types of peonies, the herbaceous varieties are virtually carefree and can live for generations.

Dark green leaves have a sheen and remain vibrant until hard frosts. Peony leaves make nice additions to garden bouquets, but don’t gather too many from one plant. Each peony needs some leaves to generate the necessary internal food stores to support next year’s growth and flowering. Once hard frosts zap herbaceous peony leaves, plants go dormant and disappear from the landscape until the following spring, when new growth emerges from the root tuber.

Another of the peony types is the tree peony. This kind of peony is a shrub, having woody stems that lose their leaves when frosty weather arrives. In spring, new growth emerges from buds on the woody stems. These types of peonies typically flower before herbaceous peony varieties.

The shrub-like growth habit results in tree peonies having giant, dinner plate-size flowers that can measure 6 to 9 inches across. The blossoms are breathtaking and long-lasting in the garden. This type of peony grows very slowly, reaching heights of 3 to 7 feet, depending on the variety. Most plants achieve a height between 3 and 5 feet.

The peony varieties known as Intersectional types were originally produced from a cross made by a Japanese plant breeder, Mr. Toichi Itoh. Gardeners treasure the Itoh types of peonies because blossoms open in hues that aren’t commonplace among peonies, including yellow, peach and coral shades. Itoh peonies are usually in more short supply and cost more than other types of peonies. Leaves and stems on Itoh hybrids die to the ground in winter, much like herbaceous peony varieties.

Common heirloom peonies include several herbaceous peony varieties that date back as far as the 1800s. ‘Edulis Superba’ is one of the oldest heirloom peonies, dating to 1824. It unfurls deep pink blossoms rich with perfume. ‘Festiva Maxima’ is one of the better known heirloom peonies, opening white flowers with dribbles of deep red on petals. It dates to 1851 and blooms reliably even in Southern gardens. Known as the darkest peony, ‘Monsieur Martin Cahuzac’ is an heirloom peony dating to 1899. It has deep maroon petals that look even more striking when planted with lighter colored peony varieties.

As you select different types of peonies for your garden, focus on choosing a mix of peony varieties that flower at different times, Herbaceous peonies are listed as flowering early, mid or late season. By planting a mix that flowers in each time slot, you can enjoy a long peony season.

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