Tree Peonies – A Spring Bonus

This time of year, landscapes here are a riot of color. In my garden, the dogwoods are blooming, the azaleas are ablaze, hydrangeas are leafing out in the richest of greens, and new leaves are appearing on my beloved skimmia that survived Snowmaggedon on my front hill.

One of the few types of plant I inherited from the previous owner of my house that still survive (we won’t speak of the hybrid tea roses that formerly “graced” my western border) are herbaceous peonies (Paeonia lactiflora) in shades that range from white (‘Festiva Maxima,’ I think) to pink and purplish-pink. They are long-lived and I adore them. Occasionally I feed them a dose of Epsom salts in the fall if I remember, in order to promote even more prolific spring blooms.

Peony, Festuca 'Elijah Blue'

A "bomb-type" pink herbaceous peony in my garden blooming next to Festuca 'Elijah Blue'. © Melissa Clark Photography. All rights reserved.

But when I became a plant fanatic, in my early days as a gardener, I discovered tree peonies (Paeonia suffruticosa). They are the national flower of China (once grown exclusively by the emperor), and are shrubby with woody stems. Slow growing but enduring, they may live over 100 years, taking decades to reach three to five feet in height.

Unlike herbaceous peonies, tree peonies can take a bit of shade, and even prefer it – an eastern exposure is ideal, and they like protection from winter winds. So several years ago, I ordered two different varieties of tree peonies from Cricket Hill Garden and they are now happily established on the eastern side of my garden. Here they are – first, ‘Colored Painting.’

Paeonia suffruticosa, Colored Painting

'Colored Painting' in bloom near my deck.

The other, with a slightly more complicated moniker, is ‘Grand Duke Dressed in Purple and Blue.’  Kasha Furman, one of the owners of Cricket Hill Garden, the source for these two peonies of mine, says that in China this variety’s bloom color is in fact more purple-blue than what you see below. She thinks it has to do with soil pH. Whatever. I have no complaints!

Paeonia suffruticosa 'Grand Duke Dressed in Purple and Blue'

'Grand Duke' has a compact, bushy habit, ideal for the smaller garden.

'Grand Duke' has lush, showy blooms reminiscent of a rose.

As a photographer, I love photographing tree peonies in bloom. Here are two from a client’s garden a couple of years ago.

A purple-red hued tree peony in a client's garden in Maryland.

And here is my favorite photograph, of an unknown pink cultivar.

A luscious pink tree peony whose petals draw you in.

Alas, the blooms are fleeting. But they are so captivating, so sumptuous, that I find them irresistible. And although I have no photos of other-colored cultivars, they come in yellows, purple, maroon and green – colors rarely seen in their herbaceous cousins. Both single and double-flowered varieties are available. You need to be a bit patient and willing to splurge – tree peonies are expensive and may take a few years to establish. But as harbingers of spring, they are unsurpassed. Think about adding some to your semi-shady garden. You won’t be disappointed.

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8 Comments on “Tree Peonies – A Spring Bonus”

  1. Ben Thomas Says:

    Great photos! I love tree peonies as well they are something that out shines so many others in the garden. I really like your grand duke one its very nice. I will have to add it to my plants list for sure.

  2. Melissa Says:

    Dear Ben, thanks for stopping by, as well as for the kind words about the photos. Take a flyer on adding tree peonies to your garden – I think you will find them rewarding, even though they take a bit of patience in getting established.

  3. Melissa, when my dad sold his house, it was late March. You could not tell where most perennials were, but I could see the tree peonies. I dug up two (my fav yellow was just too big) and brought them up to Kilbourne Grove. They have just settled in and there are buds on one of them this year, I am so excited.

    • Melissa Says:

      I’m so glad you were able to do that! And I didn’t know you could transplant them – the herbaceous ones are finicky about being disturbed and prefer to move in the fall. But needs must, and it sound like you were successful, hooray.

  4. gwendolyngarden Says:

    I love the pale pink- just gorgeous.

  5. […] have enjoyed the herbaceous types.  The flowers are large and incredibly exotic looking.  See the recent post by Melissa Clark at Garden Shoots for a more extensive description.  I have yet to acquire any tree peony with a […]

  6. ayesha asif Says:

    i am so impressed with your work.can i paint one of your flowers ,with your permission.i dont want to have the burden of guilt when i show my painting to anyone.

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