Close-up of pink peony flowers

Peonies, one of the most beautiful cut flowers

Peonies are one of the most beautiful cut flowers

They’re also one of the most ancient flowers in cultivation having been cultivated and bred for millennia, first for medicinal qualities derived from the roots, and then for the big, luscious flowers for cutting.

They require good establishment but then are low maintenance and last for hundreds of years.

The genus name is Paeonia. There are many species, hybrids, and cultivars available now due to their long cultivation. And it’s no wonder, the flowers are big, luscious, and beautiful, and make excellent cut flowers.

They last many days in the vase and you’ll find a couple of tips in the Harvesting section

Close-up of full dark pink peonies
Dark pink peonies Credit: Kate Kasiutich via Unsplash

They last many days in the vase and you’ll find a couple of special tips in the Harvesting section below.

Being long-lived, you may have seen them in your grandmother’s or great-grandmother’s garden. When you plant them, put them in the right spots and they will reward you for a very long time.

There are three main types of peonies of interest to flower growers. Herbaceous peonies are the most commonly planted and used as cut flowers. Tree peonies grow as shrubs with stunning, large flowers, but very short stems. And intersectional peonies, are a hybrid of herbaceous and tree peonies. These, too, make excellent cut flowers.

All are deer resistant and gopher resistant. They make great landscape plants; their foliage is tall and handsome once the flowers are gone, and even offer some fall color. Herbaceous peonies will die back to the ground. Tree peonies will lose their foliage.

Magenta peony flower
Peony credit: Zrenate via pixabay


Herbaceous peonies come in colors that range from whites to pinks to magenta. There are some yellows and reds, too. But you may find the best colors in that range in the intersectional types. Some are fragrant.

They are available in a wide range of forms, from singles to anemone and crested to rose and the very full “bomb” flower type. Depending on the variety, flowers can be up to 10 in. wide.

Crested peonies
Crested herbaceous peonies credit: capris23auto via pixabay

The fullest flowers are the oldest and were bred for cut flowers. But the heavy blossom is a liability in heavy rains where it can flop down to the soil. They need staking if late spring rains are a threat in your area.

Bloom time depends on where you are, but is generally in mid to late spring.

Intersectional peonies, also called Itoh peonies, were first hybridized by Japanese horticulturist Toichi Itoh in the 1960’s. Since then many new American ones have been created, too. It has taken years for them to hit the garden marketplace. And they fetch a high price. But those who grow them say they are very worth the expense.

The Itoh peony flowers tend to have a less full form like tree peonies, and are large and showy. But have long, strong stems like the herbaceous ones, so they hold up better in rains. More are fragrant, and the color range offers more of the warm colors like coral and peach and yellows.

Average height is 2 ½ ft. tall, flower size, large dinner plate sized and produce 50 or more blossoms when mature. Bloom time is late spring to early summer and is right after the herbaceous peony bloom. So you can plan for that!

Tree peonies are glorious shrubs with woody stems. They, too, have dinner plate sized flowers but are borne on short stems which should be cut at less than 2 in long. These flowers can be cut and displayed in floating arrangements or on platters.

All peonies take some time to establish and may not bloom the first year or two. But their flowers and the plants’ longevity make them well worth the wait.

Tree peonies are glorious shrubs with woody stems. They, too, have dinner plate sized flowers but are borne on short stems which should be cut at less than 2 in long. These flowers can be cut and displayed in floating arrangements or on platters.

All peonies take some time to establish and may not bloom the first year or two. But their flowers and the plants’ longevity make them well worth the wait.

Large peony flowers with short stems can be displayed in bowls or simply on plates
Large peony flowers with short stems can be displayed in bowls or simply on plates credit: Jill Wellington via pixabay


Herbaceous peony: Zones 3-8, 3-4 ft. tall and 3 ft wide, space 3-4 ft. apart

Intersectional peony: zones 3-9; 2 ½ ft. tall, up to 3 ft. wide; space 3-4 ft. apart

Tree peonies: Grow well in zones 4-9; space 5 ft. apart. Best in dappled sun but can handle full sun, too. They can take some drought once well established and take about 10 yrs. to mature. Established peonies are incredibly low maintenance and require little to no supplemental watering, except in times of extreme drought.

Pink to white peony flowers
Pink to white peony flowers in the garden. (Too far open for good vase-life.) credit: Jill Wellintgton via Unsplash

Growing the Plants

Peonies are available as bare roots or as potted plants. Bare roots are a cheaper way to get your peony collection going but will take longer before you get flowers, 1 to 2 years. Potted ones are pricier but the obvious advantage is that they are of blooming age when you buy them. You may even be able to buy them when they are blooming to help you fall in love with them, and to choose yours.

Both should be available in your local nursery or garden center. Or you choose from an extensive array of peonies as bare-roots from mail order nurseries. I have listed three excellent ones in Sources below.

Roots are available in the winter to spring for spring panting. Plant as early as you can. Containers may be available year-round.

I will give a brief overview here but will link to a couple of thorough sources for more detailed info on peony planting and care. But the best words of wisdom are:

 “When planting, take time to site your peonies in a place where they can grow happily for many years. Once established, the plants are relatively drought resistant” says Daniel Furman of Cricket Hill Garden,

Not sure if you’ll be living where you are forever? You can grow peonies in a pot. Eventually you’d want to get them into the ground, but for several years you can grow them in pots at least 12 inches wide or preferably 18 in wide. And harvest some flowers.

Close-up of pink peony flowers

Growing Overview

All need full sun—6 or more hours of direct sun per day. Except tree peonies, which prefer dappled sun.

Choose a spot where you can leave your plants for many years and that gets full sun. Make sure it’s a spot that doesn’t collect water at any time. The roots don’t like to be wet.

Prepare the soil well. Dig and loosen fairly deeply, at least a foot, and amend the soil with good compost. Good drainage is essential, and compost will help with that if you have clay soil.

Compost will help if you have sandy soil, too, by helping to hold nutrients. For sandy soil regular addition of compost to the surface is needed—but never cover the crown of the plant, that is, where the stems come up out of the ground.

Add a good organic fertilizer to the soil before planting, one that has a higher phosphorous number (the P in NPK).

You’ll want to get your soil pH close to neutral, pH 7, so add some lime if it’s acidic. Compost helps a lot with getting soil to a neutral pH and it may be all you need.

Water the plants well the first year, but go deeply and infrequently. They don’t like wet soil, but they need water to get established. Aim for a good soaking every two weeks if rain fails to provide that. In many places rainfall is all they’ll need, but in dry areas you may need to water by hand or lay a drip or soaker irrigation around the plants.

In the fall when the foliage is starting to die back, go ahead and cut them back. It you don’t, diseases can settle into the plants. Throw way or burn peony foliage after cutting to be sure pathogens don’t take up residence in your peony patch.

I always leave 3-4 inches of stem remaining so I can easily spot them when I’m working in a perennial bed with peonies. At some point in the winter the new shoots become visible. Before that you may not notice them, so the dead stems sticking up make them easier to spot. You sure don’t want to step on and crush those new shoots!

For more details on planting and care I defer to two peony experts. One is Cricket Hill Garden and the other is Peony’s Envy.


Red peony bud with petal opening
Peony bud starting to open. credit: Stux via pixabay
Red peony bud further open
Red peony bud further open, can be harvested, best between these two stages for longest vase-life credit: Couleur via pixabay

Cut the flowers while they’re still in bud but is just breaking open and the bud feels squishy like a marshmallow. Cut them so their stems are as short as you need so that more of the foliage stays behind to feed the plant.

There are two reasons for cutting when they’re still in bud. One is that the flowers will open more slowly indoors in less light and cooler temps giving them a longer vase-life. The other reason is…ants. See the Special Info section below for more on that.

Here’s a fun trick for your peony flowers: You can refrigerate them to last for many weeks! If you have an important event you’d like to have peonies for and it’s after their bloom do this to preserve them: Cut the buds in their squishy firm marshmallow stage right above a set of leaves. (You are using clean, sharp pruners, right?) Place them inside a zip-lock bag and seal with no extra water at all. Use only perfect flowers with no damage. Place them in the refrigerator where they won’t get crushed or damaged. Store for 4 -8 weeks. When you take them out, cut about an inch off the stems and place in water. Voila! Now you have beautiful peonies for that July wedding or garden dinner!

The foliage makes wonderful bouquet filler over the rest of the summer. But be cautious, because less foliage means less growth for the plant…and less flowers for you!

How Many Plants

Peonies are pricey but oh so worth it! Buy what you can, especially if you’re situated for a long term. One or two plants in three years can provide you with a few glorious bouquets. (Remember, if you need, you can plant them in container.)


Three excellent ones are:

Peony’s Envy has tons of information on peonies, planting, and care, in addition to selling a wide variety of the plants. 

Cricket Hill Garden also has thorough information on growing and selecting plants and lots peonies, dahlias, and growing tools (like a special peony staking ring) for sale.

Eden Brothers, also have other plants and bulbs (including the single Mexican tuberose—so hard to find, and you plant them at the same time as the peonies!)

Here are a few other flowers that bloom around the same time to make bouquets:

Pink peony flowers
Pink peony flowers credit: Jill Wellington via pixabay