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About Peonies

Wild Species and Ornamental Origins

Thirty two species of wild peonies are native from the Mediterranean region to eastern Asia, with two species endemic to western North America. The wild peony species are mostly herbaceous perennials, but some Chinese species are woody shrubs, mistakenly but perhaps permanently called 'tree peonies' in English. All are beautiful.
Herbaceous and 'tree' peonies have been domesticated for more than a millennium in China, and appreciation for them spread to Korea and Japan centuries ago. With the arrival of Europeans in China by the 1600s, there was a fascination with these treasured beauties. For whatever reasons, European introductions of ornamental Asian herbaceuos peonies initiated a multi-generational rage for peonies in Europe and North America, but there was much less engagement with the sophisticated tree peonies. Over time, both groups have become popular garden plants.

Kinds of Peonies at the Nichols Arboretum

The Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden is home to historic herbaceous peony cultivars that were introduced into gardens throughout the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century. Interest in peony breeding was intense during this time, producing a boom in the number of peonies introduced into the market.
Left: 'Postillion' by Saunders, 1941
Peony breeders are always trying to improve the peony by cross-pollinating one peony with another. Breeders are individually looking for their ideal balance of sturdier plants and different colors, forms, and foliage characteristics. Breeders also try to extend the bloom season by selecting for plants that bloom earlier or later than current cultivars. The peony garden represents 46 peony breeders. After World War II, the passion for peonies declined, reemerging again in the 1980s.
  • To see the range of years that the Nichols Arboretum peonies were introduced click here.
  • To see the distribution of the national origin of varieties present within the peony garden click here.
  • To see how many cultivars each of the 46 breeders introduced, click here.

Peonies by breeder


Peony Flowers: season and color

Herbaceous peonies bloom at varying times throughout late spring and early summer. The earliest begin blooming in mid-May. The bloom is usually finished by the Summer Solstice, however on a particularly cool year blooms may continue into early July.
Click here to see the distribution of bloom time within the Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden.
Traditionally, herbaceous peonies come in four colors: white, blush, pink, and red. Through modern breeding, a greater range of colors has been achieved including coral, yellow, and patterned peonies. However, due to the historical nature of the peony garden, the peonies in this collection are within the narrower, traditional color range. To see the color distribution of the peonies click here.
Click the image on the left to see the different parts of the peony flower.

Peony Forms

The American Peony Society recognizes six (6) flower forms. The key features are outlined below. The forms intergrade, but techinally every flower can be placed in one form or another. The forms reconginzed by Chinese and Japanese conniseurs vary from the forms given here, especially once tree peony floral forms are included.

Click any image for a larger view

Single: Similar to the wild form of the peony with five or more guard petals arranged around the carpels and pollen-bearing stamens of the flower.
Japanese: Five or more guard petals arranged around the carpels and stamens. Stamens are transformed into stamenoids which are similar to stamens in form and color but have a lumpy texture and thicker tissue that prevents them from shedding pollen.
Anemone: The stamens of this flower are transformed into petaloids - small, narrow petals in the center of the flower, surrounded by the outer guard petals. This form resembles a ball held in a cup or on a saucer.
Semi-double: Five or more outer guard petals with a center of smaller inner petals often decreasing in size as they near the center of the flower. Pollen-bearing stamens may be intermixed with petals or be present in the center of the flower.
Bomb: The stamens of this flower are transformed into inner petals. These petals are narrower than the guard petals but longer, resulting in a ball-like silhouette resting on the guard petals.
Double: Five or more outer guard petals with a center of stamens and carpels more or less transformed into petals creating the full body of the flower. Some stamens may be interspersed throughout the flower.
To see the distribution of forms within the Peony Garden click here.