Dramatic beauty of tree peonies in flower
THE ordinary kind of peony is a relatively familiar garden flower, usually with large deep-red or pink flowers. The large flowers resemble cabbage roses and often hang down after heavy rain.
The tree peonies are quite different. Some have smallish yellow flowers and others have huge showy flowers. The yellow tree peony is easily the most widely grown and it is a very pretty shrub with plenty of bright, light yellow flowers. It makes a sizeable bush to over two metres tall and wide.
The red tree peony is similar but with red flowers. The most decorative of the tree peonies is the moutan, Paeonia suffruticosa. This makes a smallish bush and, like the other tree peonies, it has woody stems. Although the branches of tree peonies are not very robust, they do persist through winter as cane-like stems while the herbaceous peonies die back to thick underground tubers. The tree peonies, having woody stems, can grow larger than the non-woody kinds.
The moutan is an extremely beautiful plant, long cultivated in China and Japan, where some stunning hybrids have been developed. These have large flowers, often with lots of petals, many white or pink with staining of deeper pink and red, but some with red, purple, yellow and wine colours too. Some are scented.
The fancier tree peonies can be expensive to buy and hard to find for sale, but they have become more available in recent years. In flower, the plants sell themselves because the flowers are so dramatically beautiful and the divided foliage is good when they are not in flower.
A group of hybrids between the moutan tree peony and the herbaceous peonies, known as Itoh or intersectional hybrids, has been gaining in popularity. Itoh is the name of the Japanese breeder who first managed to cross the peonies.
These hybrids have the large flowers of the moutan peony but die back each year like the herbaceous kinds, so they do not get too big. In good conditions, some can produce follow-on flowers after the first flowering. While not many of these kinds are available, new selections are being made that are easier to propagate and the supply is increasing. Some of these Itoh types have very beautiful large yellow flowers.
Tree peonies like good soil, well drained, rich and deep in a sunny, sheltered position. The tree peonies can start into growth early in a mild year and may get caught by late frost but usually they flower unhindered. The roots of nearby trees can compete for moisture and reduce flowering.