I have two tree peonies in the front of my house.  I often wonder why.

Tree peony

The blooms last about four days out of the year.  They are ruined by both rain and sun.  The plants take up a lot of space for such a limited show.

One of them is sending up an herbaceous sucker that I have to get rid of, undoubtedly because I was too lazy to saw out a tree root in order to plant it properly deeply.  The peony story here from the Royal Horticultural Society's Plantsman magazine offers a superbly clear explanation of why tree peonies are grafted onto the roots of herbaceous peonies.

Tree peonies are expensive.  White Flower Farm, whose photos of tree peonies have been making me swoon for the entire 20 years I've been gardening, charges $89.00 apiece for them. The ones I have are relatively cheap plants I paid about $20 apiece for.  They were labeled 'magenta' rather than any variety name. 

My tree peonies have frustrated me by being so much shorter than their reported height of 4 or 5 feet.  However, the one pictured above, which has been in the ground four or five years now, suddenly seems to be getting taller.

Also, the four days when they do bloom, they are important.  They start the second the tulips have finished.  They bloom with my 'Purple Sensation' alliums and overlap the euphorbia polychroma.  In another few minutes, we'll have roses and irises and herbaceous peonies and rhododendrons, and it will be another crazy parade in the yard.  But not yet.  Without the tree peonies, it would all be super-subtle here.

In addition, they make passersby gasp.  Non-gardeners will often stop me to ask, "What the HELL is that?" 

I'm from New Jersey.  While I'm not sporting big hair or very high heels or lots of jewelry or tons of make-up like many Jersey women of my age, I do have showy impulses that manifest themselves in my gardening style.  Plants that make my neighbors gasp are OK by me.




  1. You are of course correct, but isn’t fleeting beauty part of their charm? Would those big flowers seem so magnificent if they lasted for 3 months? You need a bit of eastern philosophy to appreciate peonies, so perhaps you are too, hmm, western, too quick to rant. Tree peonies are slow growing, and seldom get taller than 4 feet in our climate before the stems get straggly and they need pruning, but they do bush out nicely after cutting them back. Suggest you switch to the Itoh hybrids; they seem more appropriate for the impatient. And as relatively new additions to my gardens, both the fern-leafed peony and the Japanese peony (a wood-land plant) have been very satisfying.

  2. I’m not familiar with tree peonies, but I know that when I lived in a house with peonies in the backyard, there was nothing more exciting to see in the Spring than the vigorous daily growth of the peonies pushing out of the ground, and then those huge, full, colorful blossoms bursting out. I appreciate the transient nature of their blooms, but I like the foliage too.

  3. If you ever have the opportunity you should visit Cricket Hill Gardens in Thomaston, CT. They have the most unbelievable collection, and once the strong summer sun and heat arrives they shade the tree peonies with little umbrellas – it’s quite something to see!

  4. I have had two tree peonies for over 20 years. I also wonder why I keep them around when I am always removing the suckers you mention from one. Then every spring the wow factor of the flowers and the fragrance reminds me.

  5. We’ve got 4 or 5 tree peonies. One is magenta. It’s planted on the back border. Full sun. Clay soil. Never gets watered or fertilized. Completely neglected. It’s about 4 feet tall and 4 feet wide now and covered in, oh, 50+ blooms. I stop counting when I hit 50. I’ve given away 10 blooms already and you wouldn’t even notice.

    The other tree peonies in beds that we weed and take care of don’t do half as well. I love them anyway and look forward to their beautiful but brief show every year.

  6. Must-haves for every garden: One or two “gaspers.” That’s something that’s sorely missing in mine now, though I did have those glorious two years with the allium ‘Globemaster’ in the front yard. I LOVED the responses from non-gardeners!

  7. Ah, but it isn’t just the blooms! The heavily feathered, pink-tinged blue-gray early foliage that rises above everything else is simply stunning. I get more compliments on those leaves than I do on the flowers. And the fact that my tree peonies were rescued from a deceased friend’s garden after his family unwittingly razed everything, is what will keep them forever in my garden. Along with the fifth generation peony from my Grandmother’s garden, they are the dearest of plants because they represent the continuation of people I loved, who loved to garden just as I do.

  8. Ah yes, the lure of the tree peony. I have killed two. I kept the root peony that came up from the last murder. It is a pretty little thing, bushy, not too tall, the flowers are singles, pale pink, with a splash of darker pink down the middle and a notch out of the end of each petal. For all the world like someone went along with a little paint brush and a pair of pinking shears.

    I got caught in someone’s driveway the other day. I saw a tree peony blooming along the edge of their drive and walked up to get a better look. As I am oohing and awing over it, the owner was attempting to turn into his drive. Ooops. Normally I would have hung around to strike up a gardening conversation but for some reason I was too empbarrased.

  9. I enjoy our peonies, but my husband Blake calls them puke flowers because of the was they bloom with such big flowers so suddenly. Not his favorites for sure.

  10. Does anyone remember the late Henry Mitchell’s take on plants that give brief but stupendously beautiful flowers? Worth looking up his articles and books. He was the Washington Post’s garden writer before Adrian Higgins. I miss his passion for the ephemeral. Great gardener and writer. Does anyone know what happened to his garden? Susan H., is there a post in this?

  11. My pink tree peony just opened yesterday, keeping time with the Purple Sensation alliums that I have for the first time. Tree peonies do bloom so briefly, but I just love them – and unfortunately I don’t even have any passing neighbors to gasp and admire.

  12. I have one tree peony that I ignorantly stuck into clay in partial shade 15 years ago. Every year the few surviving feeble sticks bring forth 5 or 6 gorgeous pink flowers, and I am instantly this plant’s slave for another year.
    And, may I second the suggestion on researching what became of Earthman’s [Henry Mitchell] garden in Washington?

  13. While I don’t have many tree peonies I do admire their brief but beautiful show. The honeybees appreciate them as well.

    I also have another peony not a tree/herbaceous or a true fern leaf that just finished blooming. Its it poor crummy sandy soil-one division is in full sun as well and it keeps on chugging along-I guess it thrives on neglect!

  14. Michelle, I have the new(ish) Itoh hybrids in my Southern NJ garden, they have bloomed profusely for the past three weeks. I did not stake the Itoh this season and a few branches did flop, but between the large and prolific flowers and the long bloom period I am sold on them.

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