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Plant of the Week: Peony

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture does not promote, support or recommend plants featured in "Plant of the Week." Please consult your local Extension office for plants suitable for your region.

Plant of the Week

Latin: Paeonia lactiflora

Picture of peony - white flowers on a bush.
The peony is one of our favorite garden perennials where it can persist for a 100 years or more.

Family heirlooms, and the age-old question of who gets what, cause many problems among siblings.

Plants, though, make perfect heirlooms and can be the balm that soothes the tensions that come when an estate is divided. Because they can be passed on from generation to generation and the number increased as the family grows, no one need feel left out of their heritage. The garden peony is the perfect heirloom plant; long lived, tough and adaptable.

Peonies derive from two main species, the southern European Paeonia officinalis and the Chinese species, P. lactiflora. The Chinese species is the most important in our modern garden hybrids. Garden Peonies are long-lived herbaceous perennials that die to the ground in the winter and form a stout, coarse, underground root system. Plant heights vary but most are around 3 feet tall with an equal spread.

Peony flowers are one of the joys of the spring garden. Watching the daily progression of growth as the fat terminal buds swell to the size of a golf ball, and then suddenly explodes into a profusion of color is a delight. When fully opened, blooms are often 8 inches across.

The peony has a long history of cultivation in both the East and West. In Rome, it was known as an important part of the pharmacopeia of the day. Pliny the Elder, who died in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D., tells us in his Historia Naturalis that it is good for curing twenty ailments including everything from nightmares to liver disease.

Pliny also informs us that peonies should only be dug at night, because daytime digging invites attack by a bad tempered woodpecker with a fondness for eyeballs! According to legend, the peony is really a Greek god called Paeon, whom Pluto changed into a plant to keep him from being killed in some kind of godly intrigue.

In the East, the herbaceous peony is called "Shaoyao" and was described in 8th century B.C. literature. It was probably not grown that early but collected for its medicinal properties. Peonies became important garden plants during the peaceful and artistically progressive Tang Dynasty, which lasted from 618 to 906 A.D. In the 12th century, the richest city in China was Yangzhou. There, the Zhu family was said to have 60,000 peonies in their garden and hundreds of selections.

The American enthusiasm for peonies began in the early 19th century when the Chinese forms were introduced to Europe and then the U.S. As the American frontier was settled, peony roots shortly followed. One of the first garden ads in the Arkansas Gazette in the years before statehood was for peony roots.

One of the often-heard legends is that ants are needed to get peony buds to open. After hearing this several times during the early years of my career, I called the peony grower Gilbert Wild of Sarcoxie, Mo., to see what the scoop was. He assured me that the ants were only after the nectar exuded from the unopened buds, and were in no way responsible for the opening of the flowers.

Peonies are well suited for the deep, rich soils of the Midwest. They require full sun, good drainage and little attention. Unlike most herbaceous perennials, division should only be done when you want to pass on a portion of your plant to another gardener. Otherwise, leave them be.

Peonies often become a bit top heavy when in full bloom, with the clump splitting down the middle if a rain occurs. This is encouraged by over fertilization. If the problem occurs each year, place a wire frame support (tomato cage) around the plant as it emerges in the spring.

Peonies sometimes fail to bloom. For newly set plants, the most common cause is planting the crown too deeply. The main buds of the crown should be one to 2 inches deep. If old plants fail to flower the reason can often be traced to the lack of sunlight. Most landscapes get more shady as they age, so the gradual loss of sunlight on a favorite peony clump is easy to miss. Flower bud diseases, especially botrytis blight during wet springs, can also be a problem.

By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - April 30, 2004


The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.