Cultivating and Nurturing Chinese Peony (Common Garden Peony): A Comprehensive Guide

Peonies are one of the few plants that have been cultivated for a long time and play a major role in ornamental gardens. The Chinese peony, also called common garden peony, is one of the most important and popular species in the Paeonia family. These shrub-like perennials form clumps and have huge, fragrant flowers in the late spring and early Summer.

Plants that are well-developed and purchased from a nursery in pots are usually planted in spring. Bare-root plants are often ordered online, and are generally planted in fall. The Chinese peony can take up to three years to mature and bloom. However, you will be rewarded with a plant that is long-lived. They may live for 100 years.

The peony does not appear on any lists of toxic plants for humans.

Common Name Chinese peony, common garden peony
Paeonia lactiflora
FamilyPaeoniaceae
Plant TypeHerbaceous perennial
Mature size 2-3 ft. tall.
Sun ExposureFull, partial
Sandy loam soil
Neutral pH of soil (6.5-7.0)
Bloom Time: Late spring to early Summer
Flower Colors Pink, white, red, yellow, violet, bicolors
Hardiness Zones 3a-8a – USDA
Native AreaCentral Asia (China, Siberia)
Toxicity Mildly toxic for pets
Chinese Peony Care
In areas above USDA zone 7, peonies are not commonly used as garden plants. Many varieties of peonies are hardy to minus 50° Fahrenheit. They are therefore highly prized by northern gardeners.

Planting peonies requires a generous space between each plant and good air flow. Overcrowding can lead to the spread of disease. Three to four feet is recommended. Keep them away from large plants which may compete for nutrients. Chinese peonies require a cold winter to produce flower buds. Therefore, the crown of the roots should be placed close to the surface. When planting a specimen from a nursery, be sure to not bury it deeper than the pot.

Peonies have large, heavy flower heads that tend to fall over after rain. You can make a support for peonies without buying special rings. Use wooden or metal stakes with twine.

Peonies only require regular maintenance in the form of removing the leaves and a thorough fall clean-up. To maintain a neater look and prevent disease spread, remove all diseased leaves during the growing season.

Kame-no kegoromo with pink flowers and yellow stamens in sunlight
The Spruce (Evgeniya Vlasova)
Closeup of Attar of Roses Peony with pink flowers, buds and leaves
Closeup of a light pink peony with bud and flowers on the stem.
Peonies bush with pink, white, and red flowers in the sunlight
Peonies bush with fuschia flowers, white flowers and background
Sarah Bernhardt peony close-up with double rose-pink flowers and bud stem
Light
Garden peonies require full sun, with at least 6 hours of sunlight daily. In warmer climates, you can plant peonies in partial shade in order to protect them from midday heat.

Soil
Peonies will grow in a variety of soil types as long as they are fertile and drain well. Avoid areas where water collects. Add organic matter to soils that are clay or sandy, but avoid adding manure as it can cause botrytis. Add amendments to soil and mix thoroughly. Peonies will tolerate mild acidity but prefer a pH of 6.5 or higher.

Water
In general, Chinese peonies don’t require additional watering in areas with regular rainfall. Water needs are highest in spring and autumn. If conditions are dry during these months, water the soil slowly and deeply. Standard is to water the soil with a mixture of rain and irrigation.

Temperature and Humidity
Peonies thrive in cool climates. Many varieties can survive temperatures down to minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Winter chill is required to initiate the dormancy which resets the growth. Chinese peonies are most successful in zones 3-7, but the northern part zone 8 is also suitable for peonies.

Chinese peonies do not thrive in high heat or humidity, particularly during their blooming period. If you live in a region with humid, warm summers, you can choose varieties that flower earlier before the heat of summer sets in.

Fertilizer
Chinese peonies don’t require fertilizer, unless there are soil deficiencies. If the soil is poor or the plants aren’t flowering properly, apply a low nitrogen fertilizer such as bulb fertiliser after the bloom period. Apply it again at the end of summer around the dripline.

It’s best to wait until you see signs of need before feeding peonies. For example, if the plants don’t bloom despite all other conditions being favorable.

Chinese peonies come in many varieties.
Chinese peonies are cultivated since centuries. There are hundreds of cultivars and hybrids. These are a few of the hundreds of cultivars that have been named for the Chinese peony.

Paeonia Lactiflora Sarah Bernardt is a late bloomer with double rose-pink flowers.
P. lactiflora ‘Karl Rosenfield’ is a mid-season flowerer with double blooms.
P. lactiflora ‘Shirley Temple’ is an early-blooming, fragrant plant with double, light rose flowers that fade gradually to ivory.
P. lactiflora ‘Bowl of Beauty’ is a fragrant early season bloomer, with pink flowers that have frilly centers ranging from off-white to yellow.
P. lactiflora “Kansas” is a fragrant early to midseason bloomer, with double bright pink-red flowers.
P. lactiflora “Festiva Maxima” is an early season bloomer, with double white flowers.
There are six types of peony flowers among the many varieties of Chinese peony. They range from single-petal to heavy, double-flowered peonies. The Anemone, Japanese, and single types are relatively light and open. However, the semi-double, bomb, and double types have heavier, fuller blossoms.

Peonies of Other Types
There are several major peony categories that are commonly grown in gardens, including the Chinese peonies.
The tree peony includes a group of Paeonias, particularly Paeoniasuffruticosa3, which are woody shrubs that have flowers that are larger but more open than Chinese peonies. The flowers of the tree peonies are less likely to flop because the stems of the plants are so sturdy. Tree peonies can be grown in zones 4-8. Tree peonies are expensive.
Itoh peonies4, or intersectional peonies as they are also called, are a group of hybrid peonies that were created by crossing the tree peony P. lemoinei with Chinese peony P. lactiflora. The plants have large, showy tree peony flowers on plants more similar to Chinese peonies.
Fern-leafed Peonies5 include Paeonia tenuifolia, and some cultivars. These delicate plants are distinguished by their dark red flowers, and their fern-like leaves.

Pruning
To prevent fungus and keep plants attractive, deadhead spent flowers. Cut the flower stalks just above a leaf.

Cut the plant to just above the ground level in the fall. To eliminate fungal spores, remove and destroy all debris.

Chinese Peony propagation
It is best to divide the root clumps and dig them up. However, this can be a tricky process. How to do it?

Use pruners in the fall to trim the stalks of the plant to just a few inches over the ground, and then carefully dig the whole plant up.
Divide the root ball with a sharp knife into sections. Each section should have three to five growth eye at the top.
Replant each piece in the desired location, burying the growth eyes no deeper than 2 inches. If you plant too deeply, the roots will not get the chilling they need for the winter and flowering may be compromised.
It may take up to three years for a root-division to mature into a flowering plant.

How to grow Chinese peony from seed
Peonies are almost all hybrids that do not “come true”, from seeds taken from flower heads. It can take years to develop mature flowering plants from seeds purchased from a commercial source. This is why amateurs rarely propagate seeds. They prefer to use vegetative methods.

Potting and Repotting Chinese peony
Chinese peonies can topple over in pots because they are tall and heavy. You can grow patio peonies or dwarf hybrids in containers.

Overwintering
Giving Chinese peonies excessive winter protection is a bad idea, since they rely on a harsh winter chill to reset their flowering buds. In winter, gardeners who mulch their plants with the best of intentions could be disappointed by plants that don’t flower the following year.

It is best to trim the plants to a height of just above the ground and remove all debris from around the peonies, before the snow falls. This will prevent fungal spores overwintering in the soil and reinfecting the plants in the spring.

Common Plant Diseases & Pests
Botrytis and other fungal infections are the most common diseases that affect Chinese peonies. These diseases can be particularly troublesome during wet, cold spring weather. Remove any leaves or stems that are blackened or wilted to stop the spread of disease. Cut the stems of the herbaceous plants to a length of a few inches in the fall and throw them away. If your peonies seem to be susceptible to fungus, spraying them with a fungicide every week early in the growing season can help prevent serious disease.

Mildew is a fungus that appears on stems and leaves, especially in humid, hot summer weather. The mildew is only unsightly, and it does not harm plants. A thorough fall cleaning will also help prevent reinfection of the plants the following year.

The majority of peonies do not have serious pest problems. However, they are susceptible to thrips and scales as well as mealybugs. They can also be affected by beetles. These can all be controlled with organic insecticides based on pyrethrin or neem. The ants which cover the peony flowers are completely harmless. They are attracted to the nectar.

How to get Chinese peony to bloom
Peonies matured over a few years are usually quite happy to flower vigorously if they get enough sun. It can take up to three years for young plants to bloom. Don’t get discouraged if your peony isn’t in full bloom after the first couple of years.

If a peony is planted too deeply, it may not bloom as its growth eyes aren’t receiving the right amount of winter chill. Dig up the plant, and replant it slightly shallower. If the soil is not good, you can give the bulb a dose of fertilizer in the fall to help it bloom better the next spring. But be careful not to overfeed as too much fertilizer can also inhibit blooms.

Plants that are harvested excessively for cut flowers can also have reduced blooms in the following years. Never harvest more than a third of your flowers to make arrangements.

Chinese peony: Common problems
This plant is largely trouble free.

Flower Stems Flip Over
The horticultural sector has been successful in breeding plants with large double-petaled blooms. Many varieties of peonies have enormous flowers that can collapse from their own weight. This is especially true after rain has soaked the petals. Answer: Use plant supports with grids to reinforce the stems of the flowers that grow through the grids. Plant varieties that have single or anemone flower petals.

Plants Turn Mushy or Collapse
Botrytis or other serious fungal infections can cause this classic symptom. If you wait until these symptoms appear, it may be too late to save a plant. You’ll have to destroy it and dig it up. You can prevent disaster by spraying fungicides early on peonies that are susceptible to this disease.

Flowers Covered with Ants
Don’t worry. It’s perfectly normal. Ants are attracted to the nectar and smell of the flowers. The ants do not harm the flowers and can easily be brushed off before you use cut flowers for floral arrangements.

The FAQ
How can I incorporate Chinese peony into my landscape?
The peony is one of the most popular perennial flowering plants in border gardens. They are best planted near the middle and in small groups. They will take on a shrub like form after the spring blooming season.

They are also useful as low herbaceous hedges or edging along fences or garden walls.

How long can Chinese peonies live?
Peonies can live for 50 years and more. Plants that are over 100 years old are not uncommon. It is best to avoid moving old plants, as they do not like being moved.


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