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Peony Its History and Impact on Horticulture

Updated on August 9, 2015

Close up of a Peony flower.



In this article I look at the Peony a familiar and much liked flower of gardens across much of the world. I look at the history and the species that were the origins of the modern day varieties. Along with cultivation tips.

Peony's belong to the Order of plants known as the Saxifragales and the family Paeoniaceae { from the classical name used by the Greeks, who are said to have named the plant in honor of Paeon , a physician who used it medicinally} . They are placed in the genus Paeonia, which is a genus of herbaceous and shrubby perennials, including species distributed over central Europe, temperate Asia and North West America.

They are distinguished by the large, alternate lobed or finely divided leaves and very large and showy flowers. There are five green sepals which are persistent. Petals number from five to ten in the single flower variety and may be white,pink, crimson or purple.

History of the Peony

The peony as a cultivated plant in England dates from the year 1548, when Peonia officinalis was introduced from southern Europe, probably more for medicinal use than the beauty of its flowers. { The root of P.lactiflora was used in traditional medicine in Korea, China and Japan.}. It spread widely and by the 1800's had become a feature in most cottage gardens.

P.peregrina, which was commonly cultivated appears to have been introduced in 1629, also from Europe, and a few years later {1663} the dwarf P.humilis came from the south of France.

However, it was not until 132 years later after that P tenuifolia was brought from Siberia, followed by a period of nineteen years by P.albiflora from the same regions, the parent of an enormous number of fragrant varieties and hybrids. P.moutan, the only species with a shrubby habit, was introduced from China in 1789, and of this horticulturists produced many beautiful varieties of plants.

White Peony

From Favourite flowers of gardens and greenhouse { 1896-97}  the white peony was introduced around 1682.
From Favourite flowers of gardens and greenhouse { 1896-97} the white peony was introduced around 1682.


Illustration taken from Curtis's Botanical Magazine courtesy of Franz Xaver
Illustration taken from Curtis's Botanical Magazine courtesy of Franz Xaver | Source

A look at the original species.

Many of the species were suitable for cultivation and from them a plethora of varieties were available and there is no doubt that nurserymen will develop many more in the future. The great number of stamens, and the fine colour of the petals rendered the double flowered varieties relatively easy to produce and the greater the number of original species that were brought into general cultivation the larger the varieties were added to the list which were produced by cross fertilization.

P.alba {illustrated above} the species name indicating white flowered} grew from 2-5 feet. The long smooth stalks are often branched towards the summit, and bear from 2-5 flowers. The leaves are of a brighter hue than is usual in the genus, and sometimes the veins and the edges of the foliage is tinged with red.

The leaflets are three to four inches long, often running together at the base. There is usually a simple leaf a little below the flower, and immediately beneath the calyx a couple of leafy bracts. The flowers are from four to six inches across, fragrant normally white, but under cultivation they exhibited various degrees of colouration of yellow, rose, crimson and purple, some self coloured, others streaked or striped. The flowers appeared from May until June. The natives of Mongolia used its tubers and seeds as food which gave rise to one of its synonyms of P.edulis.

P.corallina {coral red} is now called P.daurica ssp daurica which produces stems two to three feet high. The stem is un-branched bearing one flower. The leaves are smooth flowers three and a half to four inches across of a crimson rose colour, they appear in May. The tubers are spindle shaped. The original species were known by gardeners as the male peony.

P. humilis {lowly/dwarf} is one to two feet tall. the stems hairy near the top. The leaves are dark green and smooth above, downy beneath. The flowers are solitary and bright red. The flowers occur in May.

P. moutan { from Chinese Meu-tang, king of flowers} grows from three to five feet with branched stems, woody, forming a shrubby bush. The flowers produced by this species are much larger than those of any other peony species. They may be pure white,pink, rose, crimson,purple, single double or semi double. It is the parent of all the garden tree peonies. They flower in May.

P. officinalis { used as a drug }grow from two to three feet tall. The stems are stout,smooth. the leaves are smooth, dark, paler beneath, lobes unequal. The flowers are solitary, with unequal sepals, petals deep crimson. They flower in May. This species was much cultivated in gardens {especially in the double forms} under the name of female peony.

P.peregrina {stranger} Grows to the height of one and half to two feet tall. The stem is downy towards the tip.Leaves are smooth, dull green above paler and velvety below. The flowers are solitary bright crimson. The appear in May. This was a much cultivated variety.

P. tenuifolia {narrow leaved} this species grew to a height of one to one and a half feet. the stems smooth, densely foliaged from base to summit. Leaves are excessively dissected into many alternate segments. the flowers are solitary two and a half to three inches across, crimson or purplish red. They are produced in June. This was the Adonis Peony of gardens. The tubers are in bunches with runners. it was introduced in 1775.

P wittmannia {named after Whitman} a species that was rarely cultivated but stands out from the rest by having solitary bright yellow flowers which appear in April.

The garden varieties ran into several hundreds even by the 1800's. And from these gardeners had an immense choice available to him. The garden varieties were divided into three main sections. The Chinese, European and Tree peonies.

Common Peony

'Favourite flowers of garden and greenhouse' {1896-97}
'Favourite flowers of garden and greenhouse' {1896-97}

Narrow leaved peony

Cultivation tips

the compost for Peonies in pots should be made very rich. The herbaceous species and their various types do well, and look well, almost any where in the garden. The stems and foliage die down completely in winter. The entire life of the plant is withdrawn to the thick underground tubers at this time.

Propagation of Peonies is chiefly carried out by means of dividing the root-stock, however, if good results are required this needs to be done sparingly. It is better to leave the greater part of the plant for flowering, and be content with separating the offsets for increasing stock.

The secret of obtaining large clumps is to give them plenty of manure and leave them undisturbed for several years.

tree peonies are increased by taking suitable cuttings in August and grafting them upon root stocks of P.albiflora or P.officinalis

The single and semi-double kinds may be grown from seeds, sown soon after they are ripe in the autumn or held over until March. It is wise to exercise patience for the seedlings need to be kept in their beds for at least two seasons, and in the first autumn the bed should be covered by an inch or so of light earth to give them some protection. In September of the following year they may be transplanted to their permanent positions.

Paeonia officinalis 'Double red'

Taken from Flora conspicua {1826}
Taken from Flora conspicua {1826}

Cultivation problems

The main problem with peonies is the Paeony Ring Spot virus which tends to be common and widespread in certain localities. This virus causes distinctive and irregular yellowish rings or sometimes an irregular yellow mosaic on the leaves.

This virus is thought to be soil borne but generally does little harm and can usually be tolerated in gardens.


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    • D.A.L. profile image

      Dave 4 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Deb, they sure are beautiful plants, thank you for reading and taking the time to comment. Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      We had peonies back in Maine, two pink flowering ones. The ants sure loved them, too. The aroma was quite divine, and I will never forget the joy that they brought.

    • D.A.L. profile image

      Dave 4 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      GypsyWillow hi,

      You are very welcome . The tree peony must have been a wonderful sight to behold. Best wishes to you.

      DDE, hi,

      Thank you very much for your kind comments they are appreciated.

      tillsontitan, hi,

      Thank you for your kind comments and I am glad you enjoyed the hub. Best wishes to you.

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 4 years ago from New York

      I can't believe the peony has been around since the 1500s, amazing. More amazing though is that it grew in Siberia. This was a very educational hub with lots of great pictures.

      Voted up, useful, and interesting.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Beautiful photos and informative, you always share helpful information on unique topics


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