How to get the best from your peonies

TRNEJH Close-up of Paeonia lactiflora red Sarah Bernhardt, peony red Sarah Bernhardt
Cultivating a peony border in your garden can show off a number of varieties and make spring extra colourful - P Tomlins / Alamy Stock Photo

Peonies provide more than flower power, they’re magical in every sense of the word. They take their name from Paeon, the Greek physician to the gods, because some species are used in Chinese medicine to prevent pain, lessen swelling and treat more serious ailments.

Their potent reputation among the Ancients led to the enduring myth that peonies could not be moved and this was reinforced by Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79). Writing in Naturalis Historia, he claimed that a woodpecker would fly down and peck out your eyes, should you try, and this mumbo jumbo has rumbled on for centuries. Well, forget Pliny and his eye-pecking woodpeckers: peonies can be moved and divided in October, when they’re dormant. Potted ones can be planted in the growing season.

Peonies have sumptuous flowers, so they’ve been grown in European gardens since medieval times, for decorative and medicinal purposes. Many of you will be familiar with the ubiquitous cottage garden peony, P. officinalis. The fleeting, fully double flowers appear in early May, before the petals fade and fall. John Parkinson (1567- 1650), the apothecary of James I, admired them for “the beauty and delight of their goodly flowers, as well as for their physicall vertues”.

The Anemoniflora Rosea
The Anemoniflora Rosea boasts distinctive large guard petals - Alamy

If John Parkinson had been around in the first part of the 19th century, he would have realised that you get far more flowers for far longer from P. lactiflora, commonly called the Chinese peony. This handsome plant has glossy attractive foliage that goes well with roses and it produces several buds per stem, so you’ll get three weeks of flower. The original, but rather dull species, arrived in 1805 via the botanist and explorer Joseph Banks. It was transformed by 19th-century French plant breeders, who named dozens of double scented peonies in paler shades of pinks and creamy white.

French-bred peonies were cultivated for the cut flower trade and transported to the flower markets of Paris, via the new railway network. Nearly all of them have names straight out of a Parisienne telephone directory and they include the lemon-scented cream Duchesse de Nemours (Calot 1856), the silver-pink bombe-shaped Mon. Jules Elie (Crousse 1888) and the magenta-flecked white Festiva Maxima (Miellez 1851). All three are readily available and excellent.

The breeding baton passed to James Kelway of Langport, Somerset at the beginning of the 20th century. Kelway collected P. mascula from the cliffs of Steep Holm Island in the Bristol Channel and set about breeding and naming over 100 peonies, many of them shorter in stature. Kelways, the largest plant nursery in the world pre-1914, would have shipped them far and wide and many of Kelway’s peonies are probably still residing in cutting gardens of larger houses and estates, although the names have long gone.

Kelway’s Glorious, a fragrant white double with grey-green foliage, was handed an Award of Garden Merit on the peony trial held at RHS Wisley between 2016 and 2021. It’s probably his best, although I also love Lady Alexander Duff (1902) for its ring of lavender-pink petals set around a cream middle of narrow petals.

A yellow Itoh peony
The Itoh peony, named for Toichi Itoh, the Japanese breeder who developed them - Malcolm Haines /Alamy

American breeders wanted a wider range of colours and flowering times, so they used species to create bright-reds and corals, although these didn’t have a pleasant scent. Coral Sunset (see the top 10 peony list below) has bowl-shaped apricot flowers that fade to clotted cream. It’s sensational with blue, whether it’s irises or hardy geraniums. It’s also a highly popular cut flower. The stunning deep red Buckeye Belle (Mains 1956), the most decorated American peony of all, did not perform on the RHS Wisley trial, or in my garden, which suggests it needs summer heat. However, it was the star performer in Luciano Giubbilei’s Laurent Perrier Show Garden at The Chelsea Flower Show of 2009. It mingled among sultry astrantias and smoky bronze fennel. It’s early in the garden too.

Peony flower forms vary from the pure bowl-shaped white Jan van Leeuwen, to the golden-spangled Japanese peonies such as Sword Dance. There are also Itoh or Intersectional hybrids, crosses between tree peonies and herbaceous peonies. These have inherited the pointed buds and divided foliage of the tree peony, with the habit and flowers of herbaceous peonies. They need space to shine. And more and more of them are being named.

Caring for peonies in the garden

White-pink peony blooms in the summer garden
Garden peonies require careful soil management and planting - Valerii Maksimov/Alamy
  • Deadhead Chinese peonies to encourage the rest of the buds to open.

  • Peonies like fertile soil that doesn’t get waterlogged. If you’re on heavy clay add some grit when you plant.

  • Prepare the ground well by incorporating lots of organic matter and then add a sprinkling of bone meal to encourage the roots.

  • When planting potted, or bare root peonies, the top of the crown should be no more than 5cms (2ins) below the soil surface.

  • Don’t worry about ants. Peonies exude surplus food (via their buds) overnight. The ants are feeding on this liquid.

  • If your soil is acidic, an occasional top dressing with lime will prove beneficial, as will a handful when planting.

  • Cut herbaceous peonies back by September.

How to make cut peonies last

  • Paler double peonies are fragrant and easier to place in summer borders and vases. Deeper colours tend to smell unpleasant.

  • Add plant food to the water – or use a spoonful of granulated sugar.

  • Doubles need a longer vase than singles.

  • Cut them at the marshmallow stage, when the flowers measure between an inch or two inches in diameter. Give them a long drink.

  • Cut the stems at an angle before arranging, to increase surface area, and remove the lower leaves.

  • Re-cut them when you change the water (every two or three days).

  • If you’re buying peonies, buy them before the flowers fully open – again at the marshmallow stage.

Ten excellent award-winning peonies

P. anomala subsp. veitchii (syn P. veitchii var. woodwardii)

Paeonia anomala subsp. veitchii Veitc
Veitch's peony: elegant and easy - Alamy

Nodding single-pink flowers held above grass-green divided foliage – elegant and easy. The ring of flowers swoons slightly. Sun or part-shade. 45cm/18ins

P. emodi – Early and Late Windflower

There are two similar May-flowering windflowers, both deliberately bred American hybrids between P. emodi and P. anomala. Both have handsome divided foliage that’s bronzed in spring and large single-white flowers set around a boss of golden stamens. Both prefer light shade. Saunders 1939 90cm/3ft

P. officinalis Anemoniflora Rosea

May-flowering cottage garden peony with a bowl of cerise-pink petals surrounding deeper-pink golden-edged upright petals. Like a golden jewel in May sunshine, 60-70cm/up to 28ins

P. lactiflora Barrington Belle

The Barrington Belle
The showy Barrington Belle - Alamy Stock Photo

A showy mid-season Japanese peony with a double frill of rich-pink petals swirling around upright golden edged staminodes. Sword Dance is another with a Japanese flower form. Klehm 1972 85cm/34ins

P. lactiflora Bouquet Perfect

The Bouquet Perfect
The Bouquet Perfect: a dome of swirling rose-pink petals - P Tomlins/Alamy Stock Photo

Aptly named mid-season peony with a dome of swirling rose-pink petals on a compact plant. Lots of flowers and good foliage. Raised in America in 1987 by Tischler, 75cm/30ins

P. lactiflora Emma Klehm

Paeonia lactiflora Emma Klehm
The compact Paeonia lactiflora Emma Klehm - Alamy Stock Photo

A late, compact peony with large bright-pink flowers full of gently curving petals that rise upwards. The buds are also lovely. Klehm 1951 USA, 70cm/28ins

P. lactiflora Sarah Bernhardt

The Sarah Bernhardt, a cut flower favourite
The Sarah Bernhardt, a cut flower favourite - P Tomlins / Alamy Stock Photo

This late pale-pink, silver-edged peony is a cut flower favourite, because it produces lots of flowers. However, it will need staking, because the long stems aren’t as strong as they might be. Lemoine 1906 90cm/3ft

P. lactiflora Wladysawa (syn. Bowl of Love)

Lots of smaller flowers with a ring of pink petals set around a cream middle of upright staminode petals. This neat peony flowers for a long time. Similar to the larger Bowl of Beauty. Poland 1986 75cm/30ins

P. Bartzella

An American-bred intersectional hybrid (between a tree peony and an herbaceous peony) with large lemon-yellow flowers, complete with a magenta flare and divided foliage. Nicknamed “Godzilla” here. Anderson 1986 90cm or more/up to 4ft

P. Coral Sunset

The Coral Sunset
The Coral Sunset – named for obvious reasons - Tartezy/Alamy

This breakthrough apricot peony needs a warm position to thrive. The flowers change colour so you’ll get toning shades between apricot and cream. Cuts well and a brighter colour than Coral Charm. Wissing/ Klehm 1981 90cm/3ft


Claire Austin –

Binny Plants –

Kelways –