Tree Peonies

Discover the beauty of a tree peony, a woody shrub that’s a real showstopper in bloom.
By: Julie A Martens

Botanical Names: tree peony (Paeonia suffruticosa)

Grow a tree peony (Paeonia suffruticosa), and you’ll be the envy of the neighborhood. These exotic beauties open large flowers that measure 8 to 9 inches across. The ruffled petals surround a showy center in shades of yellow, pink or red. A tree peony is sometimes referred to as a peony tree. Either way, the name is something of a misnomer. These plants are not trees in the typical use of that word. Rather, a tree peony is a woody shrub, much like a lilac or hydrangea.

While an herbaceous peony dies to the ground as winter arrives, a tree peony simply drops its leaves, much like a deciduous tree or shrub. The leaves often take on deep purple or bronze tones in autumn. Woody stems remain visible through winter, and in spring new growth sprouts from buds on those woody stems. A peony tree is hardy in Zones 4 to 9.

Tree peony varieties include a host of flower colors, including pale pastel hues and rich, saturated tones. Richly ruffled petals unfurl in shades including pink, red, purple, white and yellow. A single tree peony stem can produce many flowers—in fact, a mature plant can open over 100 flowers. There are few plants that compare with a mature tree peony in full bloom.

Tree peonies are slow growers, so it takes awhile to achieve that maximum potential. Full-size peony trees can grow to 5 or 7 feet tall. Most tree peony varieties that have several decades of growth behind them top out in the 3- to 5-foot range. Tall tree peony varieties grow faster than dwarf ones. A tall tree peony might grow 5 to 6 inches each year, while a dwarf tree peony mayonly add less than an inch to its height each year.

In spring, tree peonies flower before herbaceous peonies. This early flowering window means that, in colder zones, flower buds can easily be damaged by late spring frosts. To help protect plants in colder regions, add a canvas screen around tree peonies in late fall to insulate plants against harsh winter winds.

Tree peonies are native to China. You might hear of a Japanese tree peony, which is also native to China. In the 8th Century tree peonies were brought to Japan for medicinal use. Japanese gardeners fell in love with the plants, and serious plants men started breeding efforts, focusing on flower color and size. The resulting hybrids, which have been grown for centuries, are often soldas Japanese tree peonies.

Many tree peony varieties with English names are actually a Japanese peony tree at heart. During the mid-19th Century French and British plantsmen renamed many Japanese peonies with easier to pronounce English names. Examples include ‘High Noon’ (‘Hainun’ in Japanese), ‘Alice Harding’ (‘Kinko’ in Japanese) and ‘L’Esperance’ (‘Kintei’ in Japanese).

Like herbaceous peonies, the tree peony is a long-lived garden plant, lasting for generations. It’s also deer-resistant and, once established, drought resistant. Give tree peonies a spot with 4 to 6 hours of direct sunlight or dappled sunlight all day. Protect peony trees from harsh, drying winds and hot afternoon sun in southern regions.

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