Some Sturdy Alternatives to Peonies That Flop

Glory Be, an early-season, single-flowered herbaceous peony.
Glory Be, an early-season, single-flowered herbaceous peony. (Klehm's Song Sparrow Perennial Farm And Nursery)
By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, April 12, 2007

The peony is an old-time perennial, quintessentially American by way of Asia, and still with the power to wow. The big, bright, ruffled flowers are as shockingly ornate today as they were a century ago. The problem in Washington is that the peony never quite fulfills its considerable promise.

Most common varieties have been bred to be heavily double, so the petal count runs into the dozens. That is supposed to be an advance, but the sheer heft of the embryonic bud means that the bloom doesn't appear until mid-May. When it unfurls, it does so just as the weather shifts into the summer pattern of heat and humidity. That hastens the show and usually coincides with heavy downpours that end it. The top-heavy flowers bite the dust, literally. If they get that far.

One of the most common complaints from local gardeners is that the blossoming stops dead in its tracks. The condition can be caused by a number of factors, including fungal diseases, too much shade or drought. A more minor but equally curious complaint is that ants are drawn to the bud. They scurry over the globe before it opens, there simply to enjoy the sugary secretions, but ants have a way of unsettling people who don't know their ways.

If these woes beset your peonies, even if you stake them, my counsel would be to yank them out and turn to other peonies. My vote would be for the tree peony, although carefully chosen varieties of herbaceous peonies also would work. The tree peony is actually a twiggy shrub, coarse and frankly ugly in winter but now sublime. Its blooms tend to be more natural looking -- single or semi-double in gardenspeak -- and, of course, stakes are not needed.

The new foliage is gray-green with maroon-streaked stalks. Most specimens will hasten into bloom in the next two weeks. The one in my garden began to flower at the weekend, its first pink blossoms dusted in snow and also nipped by frost, but to no ill effect. I count 13 flowers this year, which isn't bad when you consider that each will be six inches across, a strong pink with yellow stamens. Tree peonies are supposed to be agonizingly slow to grow and bloom, but mine was planted no more than seven years ago and is already three feet high and at least that in breadth.

Why is it doing so well?

It is in rich but well-drained soil and, critically, given a sunny site with afternoon shade.

A specimen plant that deserves a special place, mine is located at the entrance to a small woodland. It would be a good substitute for a dull azalea or hydrangea, though tree peonies are difficult to propagate, hard to find and fetch premium prices.

Browsing the Web site of Brothers Herbs and Peonies in Sherwood, Ore. -- you will find such beauties as Grey Crane, a blushed semi-double, for $120; Lotus From Snow Mountain, cream with dark blotches around yellow stamens, for $80; and the dwarf yellow classic variety named Alice Harding, $50. One reason for the high cost, owner Rick Rogers said, is the elaborate process required to propagate a tree peony successfully.

Roy Klehm, of Klehm's Song Sparrow Perennial Farm and Nursery in Avalon, Wis., is another leading proponent of the tree peony. He grafts 15,000 a year, and his catalogue features such beauties as Companion of Serenity, a showy single that Klehm calls the best light pink, and Guardian of the Monastery, another single pink with purple flares. They are among approximately two dozen surviving hybrids, called Moutan peonies, that Japanese Buddhist monks bred from stock gathered in China 900 years ago, Klehm said.

Klehm does not dismiss the herbaceous peony. The key to success in a hot climate like ours, though, is to pick ones that bloom early and with fewer petals. Klehm recommends early hybrids such as Coral Charm, Coral Sunset, Coral Magic, Rubyette and Glory Be. He ships potted tree peonies in the spring but herbaceous roots in the fall. Rogers ships bare-rooted tree and herbaceous peonies in the fall. His early herbaceous hybrids are found only in a printed catalogue, which can be obtained by e-mailing him at

In the strange world of peonies, the fruits of a Japanese hybridizer named Toichi Itoh are beginning to be seen. After World War II, he crossed herbaceous and woody peonies to invent a new class of plant called intersectional peonies. They behave like herbaceous plants, dying to the ground each winter, but the stems don't need staking and the blooms are held aloft, Rogers said. Itoh's followers have taken them further.

John Elsley, who works for Klehm in Greenwood, S.C., said that "we need to know more about their performance" in southern climates, "but every indication to me is that they will do quite well" in places like Washington.

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