The Ultimate Guide to Peony Flower Care

Peonies are low-maintenance perennials with beautiful blooms. Follow this peony care guide for tips on when and where to plant peonies.

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Beautiful Pink Peonies Bloom In The Summer Garden. Paeonia Lactiflora Sarah Bernhardt.Natalia Zakhartseva / Alamy Stock Photo
Sarah Bernhardt peonies

Long-living with showy blooms and a low-maintenance low-maintenance reputation, peonies are model perennials. They strut their stuff in spring with a parade of flowers in hues of yellow, red, coral, pink, purple and white. But for peonies to truly shine, autumn is the ideal season for planting, transplanting and maintaining them. Get expert tips on peony care so your plants can turn heads for years to come.

Discover little-known peony plant facts.

Peony Flower Care Basics

Peony Eliza Lundy 7169 BrVia Brecks.com
Eliza Lundy peony
  • Peony (Paeonia)
  • Zones 3 to 8
  • Size: 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 feet tall and wide
  • Light needs: Full sun
  • Soil: Well-draining

Learn when to fertilize roses and peonies.

Herbaceous Peonies

Peony Etched Salmon 05046 BrVia Brecks.com
Etched Salmon

With more than 8,000 registered peony cultivars, the Paeonia genus has something for everybody. Hybrids and cultivars of herbaceous peonies (P. lactiflora) often conjure up nostalgia with their delicate, crepe paper–like petals and the subtle fragrance that has perfumed many a grandmother’s garden.

“Herbaceous peonies tend to be easier to grow and care for,” says Nate Bremer, president of the American Peony Society. “Hybrids that produce strong stems which need no support are my favorites.”

A top recommendation from Nate is the Etched Salmon cultivar, with long-lasting salmon pink blooms that have the appearance of luscious double peonies.

Learn how to choose the best types of peonies for your garden.

Woody Peonies

woody peonyVia Brecks
Renkaku tree peony

Woody peonies (P. suffruticosa) are called tree peonies by some, despite being shrubs. They require less sun and aren’t as prone to flopping. They often bloom before herbaceous peonies, extending the amount of time peonies can be appreciated in the garden.

“Suffruticosas produce otherworldly flowers and are gorgeous in the early garden,” Nate says. “These plants are used by small native bird species, such as chipping sparrows and hummingbirds, as nesting shrubs.”

Check out our guide to growing peonies in containers.

Itoh Peonies

peony careCourtesy Dianne Wagner
Yumi (Beauty) itoh peony

Itoh peonies are a cross between woody and herbaceous peonies. These hybrids maintain green foliage late into the fall.

Plants from this group have gained attention in recent years, according to Nate. “They have strong stems, are vigorous growers and don’t need support,” he says, recommending both Sonoma Halo and Garden Treasure.

Grow a fernleaf peony for fancy flowers and foliage.

When Do Peonies Bloom?

Bnbbyc17 Judith Bishop 1Courtesy Judith Bishop
With proper care, peony plants burst into bloom in springtime.

In late spring, peony stems poke through the ground before growing into bushy plants that dazzle gardeners with lush, showy white, yellow, red, coral, purple or pink blooms. As cut flowers, they make gorgeous bouquets. Peonies eventually die back in late fall and remain dormant over winter.

Planting just one type of peony will produce a spectacular show, but only for a short period. “Mixing different groups will provide weeks of bloom,” Nate says. “Many of these groups overlap in bloom period.”

Another suggestion from Nate: Don’t worry about color-coordinating peonies in the garden. “We mix them without consideration, and they are stunning,” he says.

Enjoy pretty pictures of peonies in full bloom.

Are Peonies Perennials That Come Back Each Year?

Paeonia Itoh Hybrid Group (itoh Hybrids) Garden Treasure. Yellow Intersectional Hybrids Peony.Natali22206/Getty Images
Garden Treasure

Peonies are long-lived, low-maintenance perennials that grow best in plant hardiness zones 3 to 8. They need a period of chilling with winter temperatures at or below 40 degrees in order to form buds and bloom the following growing season.

Do peonies need ants to bloom?

Peony Benefits: Flowers, Foliage, and Pollinators

peony careCourtesy Denny Burk

Add three seasons of beauty with this old-fashioned favorite. Without a lot of effort and care, peony plants are reliable performers that offer plenty of backyard benefits—including large, often-fragrant flowers. Their bloom time may be brief, but it’s nothing short of spectacular.

With good care, a peony can thrive for more than 100 years, making the plant a keepsake for generations of gardeners and a wise investment for thrifty green thumbs.

The abundant blooms are available in many intriguing forms, such as single, Japanese, anemone, semidouble, bomb and full double. Many herbaceous peonies, especially single-form flowers, make a great early food source for bees and butterflies.

After the flowers fade, the foliage takes center stage, providing interest for multiple seasons. Green and lush throughout the summer, it turns reddish in fall, making peonies a three-season must-have.

Select varieties with stiff stems that do not need staking. Woody peonies especially provide nice structure in a landscape.

By the way, learn about the symbolism behind peony flowers.

When to Plant Peonies

scarlet heaven peonyVia Eden Brothers
Scarlet Heaven peony

Autumn is the best time to plant and transplant peonies, as it’s their main rooting season. Prepare the soil before planting, as your peony may stay in place for 50 years or more.

According to the American Peony Society, gardeners should avoid buying spring-planted packaged peonies, which can be stressed and unable to flower. “Cooling soils of autumn trigger root growth, while warming soils of spring trigger stem growth,” Nate says. “Fall planting ensures the plants will root properly for the next season.”

Where to Plant Peonies

Peonies are at home in nearly any garden, except one with deep shade. Tall woody peonies make an attractive background for other plants such as daylilies, delphinium and other sun lovers in beds and borders. Smaller, shallow-rooted annuals are suitable in front of peonies, as they don’t compete for nutrients.

Plant herbaceous peonies in a site that receives at least eight hours of sun. Make sure the buds (or eyes) on a peony graft are no more than 2 inches below the soil surface in northern gardens and ½ to 1 inch below it in warmer climates.

Plant woody peonies deeply—bury roots at least 4 to 6 inches underground to promote rooting.

Water regularly and deeply until new plants are established.

Dividing and Transplanting Peonies

Peonies only need dividing if you want to start new plants. Dig and divide (or transplant) in fall after the leaves turn yellow. Remove a clump and, if dividing, cut so each section has at least three to five eyes, then plant. As with newly planted peonies, give divisions and transplants time to settle into their new home, as they may take more than a year to flower.

When to Cut Back and Prune Peonies

red sarah bernhardt peonyVia Breck's
Red Sarah Bernhardt peony

Autumn is also the time when gardeners living in Zones 3 to 8 should cut down the dying foliage of herbaceous peonies to soil level, typically after the first frost, to reduce disease. Discard foliage and stems; composting them is not recommended. Woody peonies’ foliage can be removed after it falls.

In spring, prune dead or weak stems to keep plants healthy and vigorous.

Colorful Award-Winning Peony Cultivars

The Bright Yellow Bartzella Peony Flowers At The Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens In Boothbay.Portland Press Herald/Getty Images
Bartzella peony

Grow a palette of American Peony Society gold medal winners.

  • Amalia Olson A pure white peony, its intensely fragrant double bloom makes a beautiful cut flower.
  • Bartzella This Itoh peony boasts bright yellow double blossoms on strong stems against lush, dark green foliage.
  • Coral Sunset A popular peony pick, the deep hues of this early bloomer sit atop a single stem.
  • Eliza Lundy Small bomb-type scarlet red blooms on a compact plant make this the perfect choice for front borders or a mixed cutting garden in a tight space.
  • Gay Paree Dark pink guard petals encircle an anemone-type center that ranges from frilly light pink to creamy white.

Are Peonies Fragrant?

“I love peonies and have bought several types in the past years, but they have no smell. The best part of peonies is their fragrance. How can I get them to smell as good as they’re supposed to?” asks reader Linda Caldwell of Newport, Virginia.

Horticultural expert Melinda Myers: While a peony’s fresh, heady scent simply can’t be beat, fragrance varies from one variety of peony to the next. When selecting peonies to grow, look for varieties that are advertised as fragrant, such as Festiva Maxima, Sarah Bernhardt or Eden’s Perfume.

Problems With Growing Peonies

“Is there any way to revive my 50-year-old peony plant?” asks Birds & Blooms reader Hazel Maki of Menominee, Michigan.

Melinda Myers: Peonies can survive many decades when grown in sunny spots with well-draining soils. Increasing shade or competition from tree roots may be causing your plant to decline.

If this is the case, move it to a sunnier location this fall. If the plant is receiving sufficient sunlight (six or more hours), it may need a nutrient boost. Consider adding a low-nitrogen, slow-release fertilizer to the soil in spring. This will encourage slow, steady growth, but will not interfere with flowering.

Backyard Tip: If a plant you’ve had for years is suddenly not growing well, check if its growing conditions have changed. A mature tree may be casting more shade, or an especially rainy season can affect how well established plants grow and bloom.

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Sources:

 https://americanpeonysociety.org/learn/about-the-peonies/

https://americanpeonysociety.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/GrowingBetter-Peonies-and-Getting-the-Most-Out-of-Your-Garden-HB.pdf

https://americanpeonysociety.org/wpcontent/uploads/2019/03/Landscape-Placement-of-Peonies-DH.pdf

Rachael Liska
From managing national magazines to creating content for the biggest brands in the world, Rachael Liska has over 25 years of writing, editing and project management experience in the family, food, gardening, home decor, travel and birding niches. As an avid home gardener and backyard birder herself, Rachael understands the joy her readers get from creating and observing beauty around every bend, and is eager to help them achieve their dreams with a mix of inspiration and practical advice.