Growbag Blog

Peonies galore – but which one to choose?


Three sisters, three types of peony, so we’ve taken one each. The most normal sister (me will be taking you through the most commonly grown ‘herbaceous’ peonies, whilst Elaine will be cooing over her stunning collection of the more rarefied ‘tree’ peonies (whilst making us all feel a bit inadequate). And Caroline, the most horticulturally challenged, has taken on the trickiest group of ‘intersectional’ peonies, so has obviously had to ask a proper gardener for some help with her piece this week.

Herbaceous peonies ….those that disappear completely over winter to sprout up again next spring. And straightaway we come to the first answer to those killjoys who don’t grow peonies because their flowering season is so short: emerging peony shoots in March are simply gorgeous.

Peony shoots are one of the exciting heralds of spring

The next stage is even more intoxicating as you start to discern the plump, curvaceous buds nestled in amongst the unfolding foliage.

Paeonia mascula bud
Can you spot the first peony bud? This is Paeonia mascula which has sumptuous blue-green leaves with a purple tinge.

So you’ve already had three months of anticipation and sculptural beauty before the flowers arrive in early June. And here is where your personal preference comes into play. For some people a peony isn’t a peony unless it is full Barbara Cartland frothy pink, like the classic ‘’Sarah Bernhardt’ or ‘Bowl of Beauty’

Paeonia Sarah Bernhardt
Sarah Bernhardt makes some people swoon, but she’s a bit of a diva

Personally I’m not a pink powder puff sort of girl, and prefer the simpler elegance in single flowers of say ‘White Wings’

Paeonia lactiflora ‘White Wings’ copyright Claire Austin whose stunning new book on peonies is just out. Link at the end.
Paeonia lactiflora ‘White Wings’ courtesy of Claire Austin whose stunning new book on peonies is just out. Link at the end.

Or the more vibrant colours of some of the deep red cultivars

Paeonia lactiflora ‘Buckeye Belle’
A sumptuous semi-double Paeonia ‘Buckeye Belle’

There are simply dozens of new cultivars on the market nowadays, so you really can just scroll through the choices on offer like a dating App (not that I have ever done that, you understand ….) until you find the perfect match for your own personality.

One tip though is once you’ve established that they are country lovers with a GSOH, check if they also have good autumn colour or attractive seed pods as this can be the final clincher in a plant that just keeps on giving.


Tree peonies. Rarefied they might be but tree peonies are clearly happy to grow on chalk, I’m delighted to say – they certainly romp along in my near-the-seaside-at-the-end-of-the-South-Downs courtyard garden.

They have the same blowsy OTT flowers of the herbaceous species but, while they do lose their leaves, they don’t disappear below ground come autumn. Indeed, they often develop quite thick branches, almost trunks, and plenty of gnarly old bits (we Growbags know what that feels like, don’t we girls? Oh, just me then.)

The single flowers of a tree peony that’s lost its name but not its beauty

Like their herbaceous cousins tree peonies have delectable shoots in spring, usually in the plum, beetroot, bull’s blood range of hues. And the foliage that develops from them is elegantly divided or scalloped, and often suffused with colour too. It’s just as well that the leaves are lovely because by golly, the eye-waveringly gorgeous flowers don’t last long! While my Coronilla glauca bush is just entering its fourth month of FULL flower, the tree peonies will dazzle for two weeks max.

Peony suffruticosa ‘Hana Daijin’: a glorious sight, but subtle it ain’t!

But what glory when they are out! My P. suffruticosa ‘Hana Daijin’ had 51 luscious rose-purple bowl-shaped blooms last year, each the size of a good-sized dinner plate! There are just as many fat buds this year, tempting us with slivers of colour at the moment. I have several others, some with names, some without. These plants are never cheap, but you can sometimes get bargains if you are prepared to buy unnamed varieties. I also love P. lutea, which fills a sunny corner with its lemon-yellow flowers and then bright green dissected foliage all summer.

The little lemon flowers of P. lutea – fresh and lovely


Intersectional peonies Yes although they look a little too ‘floofy’ for up here in Scotland, I’m right up for peonies. Mercy me – they actually NEED a cold winter to perform well – a good eight weeks below 15 degrees according to peony expert Alec White at Primrose Hall Peony Nursery*. My dears, we can provide any amount of this.

Yes intersectional peonies (also called Itoh peonies after the person who created them in the 1940s) are a cross between herbaceous and tree peonies and have the best of all their attributes – huge blooms, finely cut foliage and a lovely tidy habit.

You get masses of flowers on mature plants, says Alec, that last twice as long as ordinary peonies, they’re extremely hardy and… no kidding, they also give you fabulous autumn colour. Add to that they live for years and don’t need staking (punch…the…air) 

My intersectional Paoenia ‘bartzella’, secured as a bare root from Binny Plants some years ago. A little shy to flower at first, she’s got the hang of it now. Such a lovely plant in all its stages.

‘What’s the catch’ you cry! And cry you will, when you see the price. They’ve come down since the £70 ,000 that the first ones allegedly cost, but you’re still in for £20+ for most of them.  

Look out for offers from some of the bigger suppliers – and be ready to pounce on the ‘buy now’ button.

*From an article in Gardens Illustrated by Alys Fowler – July 2020.

NB If you’d like a bit more gardening chit-chat from the3growbags, just enter your email address here and we’ll send you a new post every Saturday morning

By the3growbags

We're three sisters who love gardening, plants and even the science of horticulture but we're not all experts. We'd love everyone even remotely interested in their gardens to be part of our blogsite.

7 replies on “Peonies galore – but which one to choose?”

Hi Linda, Elaine here. Yes, I think quite a lot of us are going to have a go with this, this year, and watch the results closely. If it cuts down their likelihood of getting blackspot later on in the summer, I will be well-pleased – anything else will be a huge bonus!

Dear Growbags, I have carefully written down (in my growbags notebook!) Martin Duncan’s recipe with Epsom salts for the roses. HOWEVER there appear to be two ways of applying it. One of says says water it in, the other refers to a foliage feed. Which is it, or can I do both???
Best wishes Maggie

Hi Maggie, well-spotted! Elaine here, and I did indeed mention Epsom salts as a foliar feed in last week’s Growhow column; that’s because I had heard Martin Duncan mentioning them during our tour of Arundel Castle so I looked them up online and that seemed to be the usual method of using them. Having since asked Martin directly, he advised drenching the roots with the solution instead. Frankly, I would definitely go with Martin’s advice for use, because his roses looked in stupendous form!

Hello. I have been using Uncle Tom’s Rose tonic, as a spray, as well as Westland Rose Food. Should I also use the Epsom salts, or am I to overkill if I do. Thanks

Hi Patricia, Elaine here. Yes, well that does sound rather like over-egging the rose-food pudding! The roses in your garden are obviously already having a lovely pampered time – I bet they are fabulous! – so I would hold fire on the Epsom salts, unless you are convinced that the other treatments are not having the desired effect. Enjoy your rose-filled summer!

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