Pretty peonies are the quintessential romance flower. They come by their popularity as a wedding flower and Instagram-worthy showpiece because of their truly breathtaking form and sweet fragrance. This everything guide to peonies covers the history and symbolism of peonies, the different cultivars, as well as how to grow, harvest, and use garden peonies.
History and Symbolism of Peonies
In eastern cultures the peony is known as the “king of flowers” and a symbol of wealth, honour, and beauty. Peonies are often seen at weddings and sometimes reserved for royalty. It was the national flower of China for over 250 years before being replaced.
In Greek mythology, it is said that peonies are named for Paeon, a physician to the gods, while there are other stories of beings turned in to peonies out of jealousy or immortality. There are many intertwined tales around the world of peonies the follow the themes of high value as a medicinal plant and as a striking beauty.
In both European and Asian countries, these beautiful flowers were traditionally grown for their medicinal properties. Paeonia lactiflora is often used in Chinese herbal medicine. Asian countries use a decoction made from the root as a treatment for inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, hepatitis, muscle cramping, and fever. The flower buds and petals are often used as a tea. Peony petals look beautiful served raw in salads but the buds and pedals can also be fried.
There are thousands of different cultivars of peony that are divided into three major groups.
Herbaceous or Garden Peonies are sun-loving garden perennials which include species such as the medicinal Paeonia lactiflora. They are low maintenance in Zones 2 to 8 and require little water once established. They can be an investment to get started in the first few years, but after that, they will require little maintenance to bloom prolifically for many years to come.
Tree Peonies (Paeonia suffruticosa) grow in Zones 4 to 9 and bloom a bit earlier than garden peonies (April and May). The stems are woody and stay above ground all year growing 4 to 7 ft tall with beautiful foliage an enormous flowers that can be up to 10 inches across.
Itoh Peonies are a hybrid of garden peonies and tree peonies. They grow in Zones 4 to 9 and bloom in June. Like many hybrids, these plants are bred for the best qualities of their parents. With Itoh peonies, you can find the prettiest flowers, the most striking foliage, and the most easy-going habit. Itoh peonies can be very expensive, but when you see them in the garden you’ll know why.
Peony Flower Types
There are six types of flower forms that peonies are known for: single, semi-double, double, bomb, Japanese, and anemone. They are all striking and showy in their own way. The single, semi-double, Japanese, and anemone forms grow petals around colorful stamens and pistils. In the double and bomb forms, the blooms are full of ruffled petals and no pollen is visible.
How to Grow Herbaceous Peonies
These cool climate perennials thrive in Zones 2 to 8 and bloom in late spring, generally between April and June.
Soil and Location
Plant peonies where you plan to keep them. They take a little while to get established. If planting from bare root, it could take three years before they provide plenty of blooms. Potted peonies will bloom faster. But still, they like to be established in the garden to produce the most blooms. So once you set them in place, they could be happy to produce flowers for up to 50 years. But every time they get moved they have to re-establish themselves. Garden peonies aren’t picky about soil, but they do like to have good drainage.
These sun-lovers need at least six hours of sun in the spring and summer months to flower well. They also require cool soil in the winter to stimulate spring growth.
Peonies are drought-tolerant and don’t require additional fertilizer to bloom. Adding compost as a soil top dressing annually should be enough to build healthy soil and keep peonies happy. While the plants are sturdy the flowers are more delicate. Overhead watering and heavy rain can be too much for the blooms, knocking them over and breaking the stems. After the rain, head out to the garden and gently shake each one of the blooms to release the weight of water captured inside. This will help them to perk back up. For those blooms that can’t be saved, cut the stems and bring the flower into the house to enjoy in a vase.
Peonies giant, fluffy blooms do get heavy so many plants require staking. There are commercial peony stakes that you can purchase but my favourite option is a peony chair. Around my eclectic East Vancouver neighbourhood, it’s not uncommon to see a seatless chair frame standing in the garden beds to hold up peonies. As we live in a rainy climate, it’s absolutely necessary to have something strong to hold those blooms up.
Otherwise, this is what happens!
Pests are generally not a problem even though you may see ants on the peony buds before they open. There’s a common tale that the ants help the peony blooms to open, but the ants are really just drawn to the sweet nectar.
How to Divide Peonies
Divide peonies in the fall after the plant has gone dormant. If you have forgotten, you can also divide them in the early spring before the flowers and leaves appear. Once the leaves have formed on the stems and flower buds are showing it’s best to wait until the following fall to divide them. Keep in mind that it does take time for peonies to re-establish anytime they’re moved or divided and transplanted.
Sponsored Content: This post has been sponsored by Fiskars who also provided me with the brand new Floral Pruner and Curved Micro-Tip® Pruning Snips which I used to harvest my peonies. All opinions in this post remain my own.
The Floral Pruner and Curved Snips are new this year and they were a ton of fun to try out. They are just perfect for floral arrangements and have some cool added features. The Floral Pruner has a stem stripper and a built-in wire cutter! How cool is that? The Micro-Tip Snips are a long time favourite for delicate pruning (as you can see in this post on Harvesting Edible Flowers) because they cut all the way to the tip of the blade. These new curved snips also have that precision, but the curve also makes them great for getting into hard to reach places. Oh, and the lovely folks at Fiskars have offered to give away a set of floral tools. See the giveaway at the end of the post to win some of your own!
How to Harvest Peonies for Cut Flowers
When cutting flowers for arrangements, to dry for craft projects, or for culinary or medicinal purposes, I put my all-purpose bypass pruners away instead use the precision blades of floral pruners and snips. Peonies have sturdy stems but they are not woody, so light plant pruning shears are perfect. They are light but have a sharp blade that can handle some heavy use. A low-friction coating means that the bypass pruners won’t gum up with sap and bits of the plant.
Don’t cut any flowers for the first year the peony is getting established, in the second and third year, if you have to cut a few flowers, do so sparingly. Keep a bucket of cold water with you and use clean tools to make the cuts. Take a long stem for your peonies but leave at least three sets of leaves on the plant below the cut. Using the proper tools is important not just for keeping the blooms fresh and healthy, but also to keep the plants in tip-top shape.
You can cut peonies for arrangements at the bud stage or when the blooms are opening. The earliest you can cut the flowers is when the buds are not quite open but a bit squishy when you pinch them. This is called the “marshmallow” stage because the bud should feel like a springy marshmallow.
Cutting them at this stage ensures that you have the longest lasting blooms but cut them any earlier and they won’t bloom in the vase. Immediately put the cut stems in cold water and keep them out of direct sunlight.
How to Arrange Peonies
You can keep the cut flowers in your fridge or a cool place for a few days to delay blooming. To speed up blooming add the flowers to lukewarm water and place them in a well-lit area.
Remove any leaves from the stem that will touch the water. You can pop them off with the Floral Pruner and use the the Curved Micro-Tip® Pruning Snips to get close to the stem if there are bits left to clean up. The snips are curved to fit into tight places and cut all the way to the tip of the blade which is great to remove any of the leaves from stems that couldn’t fit through the stem stripper handle in the Floral Pruner.
Cut the stems on the diagonal before adding them into a vase of water. They have heavy flower heads so be sure the vase is heavy enough to hold those big blooms. Cut the stems so that the blooms sit an appropriate height just above the top of the vase. Stems that are too tall can cause the vase to topple over.
Fiskars has generously offered to give away the brand new Floral Pruner and Curved Micro-Tip® Pruning Snips to two lucky Garden Therapy readers! Be sure you are also signed up for our newsletter to get news and special offers we don’t share anywhere else. This contest is open to residents of the continental US and Canada, except Quebec and where prohibited. This contest is now CLOSED. Congratulations to Katie and Joy!
The beauty of peonies doesn’t have to be seasonal. While gorgeous garden peonies only last in the garden for a few weeks and have a showy but limited vase life, you can preserve the beauty all year by drying the petals and making a gorgeous, naturally-scented peony bath salts recipe.
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