Species peonies


The majority of the species peonies have extremely attractive flowers, but only a few of them are readily available to purchase. The situation is improving but species peonies take several years to grow from seed. Peonies are amongst the most spectacular members of the plant kingdom, but for many years they were neglected by the gardening world.

While it is necessary to propagate the cultivated varieties of Paeonia lactiflora and hybrid peonies by division, the majority of the species are grown from seed. These may take as much as two years to germinate, particularly if the seed is allowed to dry before it is planted. The roots usually develop during the second autumn but no aerial shoot is likely to show until the following spring, fresh seed may germinate during the first autumn. Four to five seeds are planted at a depth of approximately 2cm in 13cm (5”) plastic pots, filled with good quality seed compost or sterilised soil. When the seedlings are approximately one year old they can be potted on into individual pots. This is best done in the autumn when the plants have lost their leaves and root development is at it’s maximum. It is advisable to cover the compost with approximately 1cm of alpine grit. The young plants grow fairly slowly at first and the grit will reduce the number of weeds that can colonise the compost.

Slugs can cause mayhem when the seedlings are very small and they are therefore best placed in a cold frame where they can receive individual attention. Larger amounts of seed should be planted outside in a prepared seedbed. The seedlings are quite small and must be therefore be well labelled so that they are not damaged by hoeing and digging.

A growing number of the species are also available as containerised plants from specialist nurseries. These will usually have been grown from seed and can be expected to be between two and four years old. Older plants are a more sensible purchase unless you already have experience of growing species peonies. A seedling that is three to four years old should flower within a year or so and will be better prepared for the vagaries of the British climate.  Nurseries that have been growing peonies for several years are more likely to provide divisions. While these are more expensive they can be expected to flower during the following summer.  

Peonies have unfortunately suffered from a certain degree of ‘bad press’. Many people believe that peonies are difficult plants to grow and in particular that they do not like to be moved once they are established. There is no doubt that some of the species, such as the diploid species that originate from the islands of the Mediterranean, are very difficult to grow. Others, such as P. lactiflora and P. officinalis, will probably outlive the majority of the other plants in your garden!

The trick with moving peonies is to divide them when they are moved. This increases their vigour and you also have the advantage of gaining more plants. Peonies will grow in most garden soils as long as they are not too acid or waterlogged during the winter. Species peonies are usually tougher than the inbred varieties of P. lactiflora. They have more genetic variation and rarely suffer from Botrytis paeoniae, the scourge of many tree peonies. 

The species

Amongst the species P. cambessedesii is one of the prettiest. Originating from the Balearic Islands it has very distinctive grey-green leaflets with wavy edges. When the leaves are held up to the light they can be seen to have conspicuous red veins. P. cambessedesii starts to grow very early in the year and may need some protection during the winter. It has pink or magenta flowers with darker purplish veins. Given exactly the right conditions it will thrive producing numerous seedlings.

One of the best-known herbaceous species is Paeonia mlokosewitschii, which is also known affectionately as ‘Molly the Witch’. Originating from the Caucasus P. mlokosewitschii has almost gained cult status in the gardening world. It is unusual in having beautiful primrose-yellow flowers that can measure up to 12cm (5”) across. The leaves are medium to dark green with a glaucous bloom. In the spring the stems are reddish-green, but turn green as the season progresses. Finally in the autumn the foliage becomes a wonderful orange-brown, flushed with pink and shades of purple.

It is quite common for prospective purchasers to wait for as much as two years before they have been able to obtain a plant. I have to say that the wait is worth it! In perfect conditions P. mlokosewitschii can grow to a height of 100cm (3ft) and may reach the same dimensions across. A mature plant can have fifty or more flowers.

In recent years several nurseries have started to grow plants from seed and with any luck this beautiful plant should become more widely available. A few years ago a division with four to five buds cost approximately £25, but the price has now fallen to between £15 and £20. True ‘Molly-the-Witch’ should have pure yellow flowers, but as nurseries often have several other species of peony flowering at the same time it is always possible that some seedlings are hybrids. Hybrids are likely to have flowers that will have a hint of pink in the petals or magenta veins. Reputable nurseries will always wait for the plants to flower before they sell them. 

The only peony that has been recorded as growing wild in Britain is the ‘Male Peony’, Paeonia mascula. This plant was discovered in 1803, growing on the island of Steep Holm in the Bristol Channel. Whilst it has occasionally been claimed as a native plant it was widely grown in the past for it’s medicinal properties. A more likely explanation for its presence therefore is that monks introduced it in the thirteenth century, when there was a priory on the island. Apart from its historical interest the main attraction of P. mascula is its deep magenta flowers. The plant is less free-flowering than P. officinalis but has attractive foliage. 

P. mascula ssp. arietina used to have the status of a separate species, P. arietina. This is a superb garden plant, free flowering with large decorative blooms.  It grows to a height of 75cm (30”) and has pink or magenta flowers. One of the most widely available varieties is ‘Northern Glory’, which has greyish-green leaves and magenta-carmine flowers. It has superb autumn colouring. ‘Mother of Pearl’ is another extremely beautiful peony but is unfortunately difficult to obtain. It has similar vigour and large pale pink flowers with a centre of bright yellow stamens.

Many people have debated whether Paeonia mollis is a true species, or whether it is just a variety of P. officinalis. There is no doubt that it is different, but whether these differences justify it being made a separate species is difficult to know. P. mollis is an extremely decorative and vigorous plant, with very large magenta-pink flowers, borne on short stems. It is a good garden plant and seems to be resistant to most diseases and pests. Contrary to a statement that I made in my own book P. mollis is fertile and produces large amounts of seed!

The famous plant hunter, Ernest Wilson, who has a well-known association with the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, introduced Paeonia obovata into cultivation in 1900. The species is named after the obovate shape of its leaflets, which are broader towards the tip than at the base. It has dark green leaves and in ideal conditions can grow to a height of 60cm (24”). There are two varieties that are usually grown, both of which have white flowers. Var. alba has green, almost hairless leaves and pinkish-brown tinted stems. Var. willmottiae has distinctive purple stems; its leaves are glaucous above and purple below. Var. alba can be found growing at Eastgrove Cottage Garden, while var. willmottiae grows at Spetchley Park, near Worcester.

The ‘Female Peony’, Paeonia officinalis, is an extremely variable species that grows naturally in Southern Europe. The most commonly grown peony of all, ‘Rubra Plena’, is a variety of the sub-species officinalis. It is extremely tough and will survive when most other plants would succumb to neglect. It has some of the characteristics of P. peregrina and this has led some botanists to suggest that it may actually be a hybrid between the two species. If this were the case then it would certainly explain the vigour of  ‘Rubra Plena’.

In the 1850’s there were in excess of fifty named varieties of P. officinalis. Unfortunately many of these fell out of favour when the more decorative and sweetly scented ‘Chinese Peony’ (P. lactiflora) became readily available. The majority of these varieties of P. officinalis seem subsequently to have become extinct, although there is always a possibility that a few survive in old gardens. One must always regret the passing of such plants.


The Plantsman’s Peony

The other member of the species that is well worth growing is sub-species humilis. While this is a relatively small plant, that rarely exceeds a height of 40cm (16”), it is very vigorous and has brilliant magenta flowers. It makes a good plant for the front of a herbaceous border or it can be grown on a rock garden. In the right conditions it will self seed and spread. Experience has shown me that this plant is far more common in British gardens than was previously thought.   

Paeonia peregrina was first introduced into cultivation in 1583. It arrived in Austria via Istanbul and consequently became known as ‘The Red Peony of Constantinople’. P. peregrina has glossy dark green leaves and grows to a height of approximately 50cm (20”). In ideal conditions P. peregrina is a strong growing plant, with luxuriant foliage, it flowers later than many of the other species.

P. peregrina can be distinguished from P. officinalis in having notched (emarginate) leaflet tips. There are three clones of P. peregrina that are commonly grown, ‘Fire King’, which has shiny scarlet-red flowers, ‘Otto Froebel’ with satiny vermillion-red blooms and ‘Sunbeam’ which has orange-red globe-shaped flowers. All of these varieties originated from seed that was collected in Turkey by Peter Barr, a nurseryman based in Thames Ditton in London. Barr had built up a large collection of species peonies during the latter part of the nineteenth century. These included numerous named varieties that have since been lost. Sadly nothing remains of the nursery now and the land was built on in the 1930’s.    

‘Otto Froebel’ has proved to be an invaluable plant for the breeding of hybrid peonies. Americans breeders, such as Professor Arthur Saunders bred the majority of these hybrids in the 1930's and 40's. Some of the best hybrids are ‘Ellen Cowley’ and ‘Montezuma’. In recent times growers such as Roy Klehm have continued this work, producing new hybrids with Coral Pink flowers.

Paeonia tenuifolia is commonly known as the ‘Fern Leaf’ or ‘Adonis Peony’ because of its finely dissected foliage. The flowers of wild plants are single and have deep cardinal-red petals. There are also cultivated varieties with double red, pink and white flowers. It is extremely hardy and easy to grow.

Paeonia veitchii is one of the smallest growing species in the genus, it rarely exceeds a height of 50cm (20”) and is often shorter. It grows easily from seed and makes a good plant for the rock garden. The young foliage is bronze-green in colour, becoming dark green as the season progresses. The flowers of this species have actually had a colour named after them, Peony Purple. This is slightly unfortunate as the flowers of the species range in colour from pink, to purple or more rarely white! It has two or more flowers to a stem. P. anomola looks very similar to P. veitchii but has a single red flower to each stem.

These then are the most commonly available species of peony. Occasionally it may be possible to obtain the beautiful Paeonia emodi. This white peony originates from the foothills of the Himalaya Mountains, where it grows in large colonies at an altitude of approximately 1,500 to 3,200 metres (5,000 to 10,500 ft). P. emodi grows to a height of  75cm (30”) and has deeply divided glossy green leaves. The flowers are large, pure white and measure as much as 12cm (5”) across with yellow stamens. It grows best in dappled shade at the edge of woodland.

Another species that may prove difficult to obtain is Paeonia wittmanniana. True P. wittmanniana has large creamy-white flowers, which are slightly hidden amongst the foliage. Unfortunately many of the plants that have been sold as this species are actually a hybrid with pale pink flowers. P. wittmanniana is a large plant that will grow to a height of 100cm (36”) or more, with a similar spread. This makes it too large for some gardens but it is an impressive plant that deserves to be more widely grown. In recent years P. wittmanniana has been widely used by American breeders to raise new strains of vigorous hybrid peonies.

Finally there are three very desirable species that will prove more of a challenge to grow. P. rhodia, P. clusii and P. parnassica are endemic to the islands of Rhodes, Crete and the Greek mainland. All three require extremely well drained soil and should be kept dry during the summer. They are quite hardy, but because they start to grow quite early in the year their foliage can be damaged by late frosts.  They grow best when planted against a south or west-facing wall or in a raised bed.

You may wonder why I have left the Chinese Peony, Paeonia lactiflora, until last. Well the main problem with this species is that no one seems to have seen true wild collected specimens. Most of the plants that have reached the West seem to be derived from cultivated plants. For many years it was believed that a cultivar called ‘Whitleyi’, which was introduced in 1808, was the closest to the wild species. However my research has shown that this plant is misnamed and is probably a more recent hybrid. Only time will reveal the truth as more specimens reach the west from China.

© Martin Page 2000-2010

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