Information Panels : Garden Peonies

Author: RNDr. Pavel Sekerka

Tree Peony – Paeonia suffruticosa


First records about growing tree peonies as medicinal plants were from China, east dynasty Han (around 250 BC). They were first mentioned as ornamental plants at the end of 4th century, mostly grown in temples and monasteries, not only in palaces. Peony is considered Chinese national flower; called mudan; under protection of the emperor and it is a symbol spring (as lotus represents summer, chrysanthemum fall and winter symbols are apricot and peach blossoms).

Tree peonies were imported to Japan in 8th century. They were grown in temples at first, but rapidly gaining popularity among people. The original Chinese cultivars have gained an important post between Japanese national ornamentals. During 17th -19th century a number of new Japanese varieties developed, they were different from the Chinese parents in a shape and flower structure. Japanese prefer big flowers, single on semi-double, of clear and mostly lighter colors; unlike Chinese, who prefer flowers full, heavy and often dark in color.

Europeans got familiar with tree peonies in Peking in 1656 and in 1789 first import to Kew Botanic garden arrived organized by Alexander Duncan. More plants were brought in 1794 and first hybrids with a dark spot on petal base (´Rock´s Variety´) in 1802.

In the years 1860 – 1890 tree peonies became fashionable plant and lots of nurseries in Europe specialized in growing of them (Kelways Nurseries – England, Heage & Schmidt – Germany, Krelage – Holland, Verdier – France) and they came with first hybrids with European origins up. So that Paillet nursery near Paris can have 337 cultivars of tree peonies listed in their catalogue in 1890. Since the half of 19th century also imports of Japanese tree peonies were known.

Americans brought them from Europe around 1900 and in 1903 American Peony Society was established. It exists until today and it keep a register of cultivars.
In general, imported Chinese varieties of peonies have been so well bred in color (from pure white to dark red) and flower shape that American and European breeding has had very little new to bring in. But a new impulse in breeding has started after importing new species of tree peonies into Europe and breeders has tried to give flowers a new color – yellow.

Lemoine Hybrids of Tree Peonies
At the beginning of 20th century nurserymen Viktor and Emile Lemoine  together with  professor Louise Henry has done the first hybridization between tree peonies with full flowers and a yellow peony. These hybrids have been named in their honor P. x lemoinei. Later A. P. Saunders and W. Gratwick have paid attention to this breeding and they gained unusual flower colors like orange, apricot, yellow or dark red. These varieties also grow vigorously, but they sprout and bloom later, together with garden varieties of herbaceous peonies. The most known cultivars from this group are:

´Souvenir de Maxime Cornu´ - yellow flowers with orange to red margins,

´High Moon´ - yellow flowers with red spot in the middle,

´Black Pirate´ - deep dark red flowers.


Intersectional Hybrids

In 1948 Japanese Dr. Toichi Itoh was successful in crossing yellow cultivar ´Alice Harding´ with an herbaceous peony and first Intersectional hybrids (Itoh Peonies) were born. They bloomed for the first time in 1963.

These peonies are vigorous and grow well; they lignify at ground level, but respond to herbaceous peonies in size. Flowers are mostly misshapen and not very attractive; just a few cultivars have regularly shaped flowers, which are full or double. Today there are many intersectional hybrids also in colors of pink or red, but the most interesting are still the yellow cultivars.


Herbaceous Peonies

Varieties of Common peony - Paeonia officinalis


Also called European Peony grows as natural botanical species in France, south Switzerland, Austria, Hungary and on Istria Peninsula, Albania, Croatia and Italy. It used to be grown as medicinal and ornamental plant in medieval. Varieties of Common Peony were a fashionable plant just shortly, e.g. in 16th-17th century France. Matthioli wrote in his herbarium (around 1554) that full and deep red common peony has been brought to Germany from Spain and it’s been sold for 15 ducats at first. But later it became so widespread that it was called the flower (or rose) of the poor and wealthier class ignored them in their gardens. Until 19th century many garden cultivars were obtained. For instance Parisian nursery of Charles Verdier offered in 1850 more than 50 varieties. Today we can practically get in touch with only three cultivars with full flowers: white ´Alba Plena´, pink ´Rosea Plena´ and deep red ´Rubra Plena´. They bloom early, starting 14 days before cultivars from Paeonia lactiflora.

Chinese Peony– Paeonia lactiflora


While in medieval Europe peonies have been omitted, they’ve been one of the most popular perennials in China and Japan. The botanical species range from north and central China to Mongolia and Siberia. First records of growing Chinese Peony also called Common Garden Peony are probably from 536 AD and at the end of 16th century nurseries cited over 30 varieties. In the Edo era of Japan (17th to 19th century) around 100 cultivars were known. Europeans got familiar with hybrids of Chinese Peonies in second half of 17th century in China and brought them back home with them probably in 1784. Varieties grown in Europe became a big hit instantly, because Chinese peonies broaden significantly color palette of grown plants (mostly with shades of pink) and they were also very variable in shapes. First breeding of herbaceous peonies; Common Peony and Chinese Peony as well; has started in France in Nicolas Lemoin’s nurseries in Porte St. Denis not far away from Paris. He was the first European who’s grown Chinese Peony from seeds and who’s sold its varieties. His cultivar ´Edulis Superba´ is very widespread until today. Later at the beginning of 19th century many nurseries in France, Belgium, Holland and England followed with breeding of Chinese Peony and they basically continued with over 1000 years old ambitions of Asian colleagues. Today’s assortment of cultivars is quite conservative; most of it is still 30 or more years old. Plants with monster flowers appear sometimes as newcomers – they have narrow and jagged petals.

Inter-species Hybrids of Peonies


Attempts to crossbreed Chinese Peony with other peonies with an aim of even higher level of variability started probably around 1840. First successful experiment with Fern Leaf Peony (P.tenuifolia) lead to cultivar ´Smouthi´ hybridized by Smouth a Malines which is grown until today. But the most famous inter-species hybridizers are members of the Lemoine family. Victor Lemoine (+1911) and his son Emile (+1942) has focused not only on tree and herbaceous peonies, but they used Caucasian species like P. witmanniana for the first time. They has brought yellowish flower color, healthy and vigorous growth and early blooming.

a) Peonies derived from cultural varieties of Common Peony

Hybrids of Common Peony and Chinese Peony has gained deep red color from Common Peony. They have mostly single or double flowers and distinctive yellow anthers. Full flowers of deep red or pink are not so often. They bloom early, a little bit later than botanicals.


b) Peonies from Fern Leaf Peony Breeding

They have low and compact growth from the parent and leaflets are more divided and narrow. Flowers are mostly sinlgle in deep red flowers. They suit for borders or fronts of beds. Blooming season is at the beginning of May.

c) Peonies from Yellow Caucasian Peonies

They are relatively high, upright, with paler green foliage and large oval or round leaflets. Flowers are mostly single, big and in colors of white, cream, yellowish or pale pink; sometimes veined or changing colors. They are very common and they start blooming at the beginning of May.

d) Other Hybrids of Botanical Species
They have mostly single flowers and are early. Their characteristics combine both parents.