Types of peonies: an overview of 40 best varieties

Types of peonies: an overview of 40 best varieties

Peonies are an extremely diverse group of plants. In this article, we will introduce you to different types of peonies you can grow in your garden.

The genus of peonies (Paeonia) has an almost unlimited variety of flower colours and shapes. This is thanks to the intensive and lengthy work of numerous plant breeders around the world. For this reason, it is almost impossible to name a favourite among the countless peony species and their varieties. To make your decision-making process a little easier, we have listed the most beautiful types of peonies below.

Peony species and varieties at a glance

Well-assorted horticultural businesses can offer up to 600 perennial varieties of peonies and up to 200 varieties of shrub peonies. As you can see, it can be easy to get overwhelmed with so many options. With such an immense number of plants, it might be helpful to familiarise yourself with some distinguishing features between them.

Different growth forms of peonies: shrub peonies vs. herbaceous peonies

Basically, the genus Paeonia can be categorised into two subgroups: the shrub peonies and the herbaceous perennial peonies. Both forms of peony growth do credit to their name: the non-lignifying shoots of the herbaceous peony die in autumn and sprout again the following spring, bursting with vigour. The shrub peony, on the other hand, develops lignified wooden shoots and does wither when winter approaches. This means that under favourable conditions, the shrub peony’s growth is usually much more extensive than that of the perennial peony. Therefore, if you decide to plant a shrub peony in your garden, be sure to give it sufficient space to grow.

Choosing a type of peony: which species is the best?

First, the perennial peonies (especially Paeonia lactiflora) have a tuberous, thickened rootstock and herbaceous growth, which means that the plants sprout in spring, retreat into the earth in autumn and survive there with the help of their hibernation organs. These types of peonies can reach a height of 130 cm and can even grow beyond that with increasing age. For this reason, adequate space in the bed should be available from the outset. Second, shrub peonies (especially Paeonia suffruticosa) develop woody shoots and branches. Although they also lose their leaves in autumn, they still remain visible with their branch structures poking through the soil. This plant species can reach a height of 250 cm and more in the course of many years, if they are given a good spot in the garden.

Furthermore, there is also one other group of peonies that should not be omitted from any list of peony varieties. Peony hybrids are somewhat a botanical sensation, as they are a cross between the perennial and shrub peony species. This type of peonies exists since the middle of the 20th century owing to the Japanese horticulturist Toichi Itoh. It has only been known in Europe for just about two decades, though. Over time, more varieties of this species have been created, which means that there is now a whole range of new peony hybrids that bloom in different colours, grow compactly and have a long period of bloom. The hybrid peonies only lignify at the base and often have very attractive foliage combined with the characteristic compact growth typical of perennial peonies.

Flowering period of peonies

In summary, the period of bloom of peonies is between mid-April and the end of June. The following list of plants is intended to give you an overview of peony species and, at the same time, to briefly introduce you to the respective peony varieties and their characteristics (growth, flowering, etc.). This will hopefully help you decide which kind of peony you would like to grow in your garden.

The flowering periods of the peonies in this article are structured as follows (keep in mind that this applies mainly to temperate climate zones):

  • very early = between middle and end of April
  • early = between the end of April and mid-May
  • medium = between middle and end of May
  • late = between the end of May and mid-June
  • very late = middle to end of June

Perennial peonies

Perennial peonies, the herbaceous type of peonies, are one of the most popular as well as robust plants one can cultivate in their garden bed. These plants prefer to stay in a location that suits their needs without having to be replanted afterwards. They come in many colour variations – with and without fragrance and with different growth heights. In the following paragraphs, you can learn everything you need to know about perennial peony varieties.

Wild perennial peonies

No other wild plant, apart from the shrub peony, produces such large flowers as the wild varieties of herbaceous peonies. The coloured calyxes of these individuals can grow up to 15 cm in size. The home of the wild types of peonies is on the slopes of the Caucasus, in the Urals, the Himalayas and also in the Atlas Mountains in Algeria and Morocco. Sadly, the European species are now almost extinct and can only be found in the southern parts of the Alps and in some areas in Siberia.

The following representatives of the wild peonies are particularly attractive:

  • Common peony (Paeonia officinalis): reaches a height of 50 cm; white to pink flowers, 7 – 9 cm flower diameter, without fragrance; flowering time is very early to early
  • Arietina peony (Paeonia mascula subsp. arietina): reaches a height of 60 cm; white to pink to carmine red flowers, 10 – 12 cm flower diameter, no fragrance; flowering time is very early to early
  • Paeonia peregrina: reaches a height of 70 – 100 cm; red flowers, 7 – 11 cm flower diameter, no fragrance; flowering time is early
  • Paeonia tenuifolia: reaches a height of 30 – 40 cm; red flowers, 5 – 7 cm flower diameter, delicate fragrance; flowering time is very early
  • Golden or Caucasian peony (Paeonia mlokosewitschii): reaches a height of 50 cm; yellow flowers, 10 cm flower diameter, delicate fragrance; flowering time is very early
  • Chinese peony (Paeonia lactiflora): reaches a height of 50 – 60 cm; white or pink flowers, 7 – 10 cm flower diameter, delicate fragrance; flowering time is late

Heirloom perennial peony varieties

These varieties of peony, which were developed in the 19th and early 20th centuries, are no longer as present today as they were in those days. However, they are just as indispensable as the heirloom roses, which are still unrivalled in their beauty and fragrance. They have one disadvantage, though: their flower stems often cannot carry the weight of their enormous flowers. Therefore, heirloom perennial peonies usually need a solid support. The majority of known and commercially available shrub peonies can be traced back to the species Paeonia lactiflora.

The following peony varieties have been loved by gardeners for several hundred years and these plants still have a lot to offer even today:

  • ‘Duchesse de Nemours’ (Paeonia lactiflora): reaches a height of 80 – 100 cm; white flowers, 13 cm flower diameter, fresh scent with a hint of lemon; flowering time is late
  • ‘Festiva Maxima’ (Paeonia lactiflora): reaches a height of 80 cm; white flowers, 12 cm flower diameter, delightful typical peony scent; flowering time is medium
  • ‘Karl Rosenfield’ (Paeonia lactiflora): reaches a height of 70 cm; red flowers, 14 cm flower diameter, delicate, spicy fragrance; flowering time is medium
  • ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ (Paeonia lactiflora): reaches a height of 95 cm; pink flowers, 16 – 20 cm flower diameter, strong fragrance; flowering time is late
  • ‘K√∂nigswinter’ (Paeonia lactiflora): reaches a height of 65 cm; white to purple flowers, 14 cm flower diameter, pleasant fragrance; flowering time is late with late blooming
  • ‘Schwindt’ (Paeonia lactiflora): reaches a height of 95 cm; carmine pink flowers, 14 cm flower diameter, delicate fragrance; flowering time is medium to late
  • ‘Wiesbaden’ (Paeonia lactiflora): reaches a height of 80 cm; light pink flowers, 13 cm flower diameter, no fragrance; flowering time is late
peony variety sarah bernhardt
The variety ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ will impress you not just with its splendid blossoms but also with its delightful fragrance [Shutterstock.com/Natali22206]

Japanese perennial peonies

The plants in this group have a unique flower shape and were largely bred in Japan. The stamens of these varieties were transformed by breeding and purposeful selection into petals and thread-like structures (petaloids) which fill the inside of the flower. These peony varieties were also known in Japan as the imperial flowers.

Another key feature of Japanese peonies is that their outer petals often have a different colour than the inner part of the flower. At the beginning of the 20th century, this type of cultivation also reached America, whereupon numerous American cultivars with Japanese characteristics were developed within a short time.

The following varieties are one of the best peonies to grow in the garden:

  • ‘Bowl of Beauty’ (Paeonia lactiflora): reaches a height of 65 cm; vintage pink flowers with light yellow inner petals, 15 – 16 cm flower diameter, no fragrance; flowering time is late
  • ‘Neon’ (Paeonia lactiflora): reaches a height of 90 cm; pink to purple flowers with red inner petals, 12 cm flower diameter, delicate fragrance; flowering time is late
  • ‘Sword Dance’ (Paeonia lactiflora): reaches a height of 70 cm; garnet red flowers with carmine pink inner part, 14 cm flower diameter, delicate fragrance; flowering time is very late

Peony shrubs

Moving on, there are about 1,000 varieties of shrub or bush peonies as well as several different species with a shrub-like growth. However, most of the varieties of shrub peonies that are commercially available belong to the species Paeonia suffruticosa. Shrub peonies grow taller than their herbaceous counterparts and tend to have more stable flower stems.

Wild shrub peonies

Next, the plants listed below are currently one of the most commonly bred decorative plants and they originate from China. If you are interested in growing these types of peonies at home, they can usually be bought as one to four year old seedlings.

  • Paeonia rockii: reaches a height of 150 – 200 cm; single or double-flowered white to pink blossoms with dark basal spots, up to about 20 cm flower diameter, light fragrance; flowering time is early; some might know this species as Paeonia suffruticosa rockii
  • Paeonia delavayi: reaches a height of 150 – 200 cm; mahogany to orange-red flowers, up to 8 cm flower diameter, lily scented
  • Paeonia ludlowii: reaches a height of 180 – 250 cm; yellow flowers with a diameter of 5 – 8 cm, no fragrance; flowering time is late to very late
  • Paeonia lutea: reaches a height of 100 cm; yellow flowers with a diameter of 5 – 6 cm, lemon scent; flowering time is late

Shrub peonies: Paeonia suffruticosa

Some of the varieties in this group are also considered to be heirloom peonies as they are several centuries old. Both the Chinese and Japanese varieties and the old European varieties belong to this group. These varieties tend to grow taller and some of them have light green to bright green leaves. Additionally, these kinds of peonies are also often referred to as Paeonia suffruticosa hybrids because the genetic identity of other peony species cannot be clearly distinguished (the crossing partners can no longer be positively identified).

The following plants are guaranteed to enrich every private garden:

  • ‘Hana Kisoi’ (Paeonia x suffruticosa): reaches a height of 150 – 200 cm; pink flowers, 20 cm flower diameter, fragrant; flowering time is early
  • ‘Higurashi’ (Paeonia x suffruticosa): reaches a height of 130 cm; dark, vintage pink flowers, 16 – 18 cm flower diameter, fragrance-free; flowering time is early
  • ‘Shimadaijin’ (Paeonia x suffruticosa): reaches a height of 150 cm; red to violet flowers, 18 cm flower diameter, no fragrance; flowering time is early

Hybrid peonies

Peony hybrids are the product of crossing two different Paeonia species. Depending on the genetic similarity, a cross between two different species can be more or less successful. In the case of peonies, combinations of varieties of different Paeonia species are possible. In general, the aim of crossing is to combine the positive traits of the parent plants in the succeeding hybrid generation.

Perennial Paeonia hybrids

Compared to the historical, classic perennial peonies, modern peony hybrids are usually characterised by stable growth and early flowering time. The latter is usually four to six weeks before the start of flowering, which is usual for Lactiflora peonies. Perennial peony hybrids are available in many different forms ranging from white to pink to dark red and yellow and also with open, semi-double or double flowers.

The following hybrids are particularly attractive:

  • ‘Carina’ (Paeonia x hybrida): reaches a height of 70 cm; scarlet red flowers, 14 – 17 cm flower diameter, without fragrance; flowering time is medium
  • ‘Coral Charme’ (Paeonia x hybrida): reaches a height of 80 cm; coral pink flowers, 18 cm flower diameter, no fragrance; flowering time is medium
  • ‘Cytherea’ (Paeonia lactiflora x Paeonia peregrina): reaches a height of 50 cm; raspberry red flowers, 16 cm flower diameter, no fragrance; flowering time is early
  • ‘Paula Fay’ (Paeonia x hybrida): reaches a height of 50 cm; candy pink flowers, 12 cm flower diameter, no fragrance; flowering time is early
  • ‘Roselette’ (Paeonia x hybrida): reaches a height of 70 cm; pink flowers, 9 cm flower diameter, delicate fragrance; flowering time is early

Shrub peony hybrids

These hybrids are the result of crossing the regal Suffruticosa varieties with the wild species Paeonia delavayi, Paeonia lutea and Paeonia rockii. The growth of these peony hybrids is usually postponed for about three weeks compared to their classic shrub relatives.

  • ‘Black Pirate’ (Paeonia lutea x Paeonia delavayi): reaches a height of 90 – 120 cm; dark red flowers, 15 cm flower diameter, no fragrance; flowering time is medium
  • ‘High Noon’ (Paeonia lutea x Paeonia delavayi): reaches a height of 150 cm; yellow flowers with red basal spots, 10 cm flower diameter, no fragrance; flowering time is late
  • ‘Souvenir du Maxime Cornu’ (also: ‘Kinkaku’, Paeonia suffruticosa x Paeonia lutea): reaches a height of 150 cm; yellow flowers with orange edges, 16 cm flower diameter, sweet fragrance; flowering time is medium
  • ‘Tria’ (Paeonia lutea x hybrid): reaches a height of 150 cm; yellow flowers, 10 cm flower diameter, sweet fragrance; flowering time is early to medium

Tip: The later flowering time of these hybrids is suitable for extending the overall flowering time of the shrub peonies.

Itoh hybrids: intersectional peony hybrids

The so-called Itoh peonies are truly unique and simply had to make it onto our peony varieties list. They are hybrids between the perennial and shrub peonies (Paeonia lactiflora x Paeonia lutea, synonym: Paeonia x itoh). These intersectional crosses combine the evergreen foliage and flower size of the shrub peony with the compact growth and winter hardiness of the perennial forms. The crosses of the Itoh group were named in honour of their discoverer, the famous Japanese horticulturist Toichi Itoh.

  • ‘Bartzella’: yellow Itoh hybrid with internal red basal spot; maximum height 100 cm; very popular, but also expensive
  • ‘Cora Louise’: creamy-white with purple eye in the middle of the flower; loose growth; reaches a height of 100 cm
  • ‘Love Affair’: pure white flowers; half full flowering with late flowering
  • ‘Old Rose Dandy’: changeable flower colour from light beige to vibrant purple with all intermediate stages; semi-double flower; 70 to 80 cm tall
  • ‘Red Double Seedling’: intense dark red flowers; partly double with medium flowering time; up to 80 cm tall
  • ‘Scarlet Heaven’: bears bright red flowers; maximum 80 cm tall with very bushy growth
peony variety bartzella
‘Bartzella’ is a gourgeous yellow Itoh variety of peony that should not be missing from any garden [Shutterstock.com/Aleksaegor]


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