Learn all the details of how to care for and grow tree peonies. They are long-lived shrubs that love well drained soil and dappled shade, and their show stopping blooms are sure to be the star of your spring garden.
Although I love all kinds of peonies, I think tree peonies are my favorite.
They have such huge, beautiful flowers that it is hard not to love them!
And what a display they put on in the spring! Once they get going, one tree peony can have 15 or 20 blooms on it at a time.
Even better? They look so stunning that people assume they are hard to grow…and really…nothing could be further from the truth.
In my opinion, if you can have pretty plants with gorgeous flowers that are easy to care for and grow, you have a winner! And tree peonies definitely fall in that category.
Read on to learn all about the details of caring for tree peonies and find out just how little work growing them actually is.
Here’s what we’ll be covering:
Where to plant tree peonies
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Zone: 4 to 8
First to clear up any misunderstanding…tree peonies aren’t really trees. They are deciduous shrubs.
Unlike standard herbaceous peonies, they have woody stems that do not die all the back to the ground, except in the coldest growing regions.
Size: 3 feet to 8 feet
Tree peonies generally grow wider and taller than the standard herbaceous peony and can reach up to 8′ tall, depending on the variety.
They are fairly slow growers so try to leave them room to expand. If you’re like me, it’s hard to see a “bare spot” in the garden and leave it empty, but they will make it worth your while!
These plants are quite adaptable to many different growing conditions.
They are generally listed as being “full sun” plants, but I have grown them successfully in some fairly shady areas. As long as they get some dappled sun they seem to do just fine.
The huge blooms are susceptible to wind so if you want the flowers to last longer, plant them where they are somewhat protected.
Finally, they do not like wet roots.
In fact, tree peonies will do better with too little water than too much…so try to avoid planting them in areas that tend to get waterlogged.
To keep the plants happy, let the soil dry out completely before watering deeply.
How To Plant Tree Peonies
When To Plant
The best time to plant tree peonies (especially bare root ones) is in the fall.
This gives the plant time to establish itself and grow roots before it starts to grow in the spring.
Speaking of bare root plants, I am usually a little wary about planting them because I have had some bad luck trying to get some plants to grow.
However, this isn’t the case with tree peonies! I actually got one off the sale rack at Walmart that I didn’t think would survive (it was only $3…I couldn’t resist). Not only did it grow very easily, it’s thriving in a very shady spot!
How deep you put the bare root plant depends on whether it is grown on its own rootstock or not.
If it is grafted (many are), you should be able to see a knot where the tree peony was attached to the rootstock.
This graft union should be planted at least 6″ below the soil surface to leave enough room for the stem to create its own root system.
All other types (own root plants and potted plants) should be planted slightly deeper than the previous soil level.
Unlike herbaceous peonies, tree peonies actually do better if they are planted a little too deep rather than a little too shallow.
As with most plants, you can give your tree peony a head start by digging a fairly large hole and filling it with a mix of compost and topsoil along with the garden soil.
Adding a little bone meal into the mix will make your peonies really happy.
Water the new plant, but don’t overwater (the soil should be damp not soaking). Too much water will cause the root to rot and kill the plant before it has a chance to get started.
Caring For Tree Peonies
The first thing to know about caring for tree peonies is that they set their buds the summer before they bloom.
That means if the stems get cut or break late in the growing season or early in the spring, you will likely see fewer (or no) blooms.
Generally speaking, tree peonies don’t need pruning, other than to remove dead branches.
But if you do need to prune them, make sure to do it in the spring when you can tell where the buds are…and don’t cut them off if you want to keep the flowers :).
Some gardeners say that removing the flowers when they have finished blooming, is a good idea (unless you want to grow some seeds). The energy that would have gone into seed production is then used to establish stronger roots which will produce a healthier plant (and hopefully more blooms next year!) When you do this, cut the flower off at the top of the stem immediately after it is finished blooming to prevent cutting off next year’s blooms and weakening the branch it is growing on.
Having said all that, I usually just let the flowers go to seed 🙂
For some plants, providing support for the flowers may be necessary.
If the flowers are drooping, you may want to install a tomato ring or other type of plant support that will help to keep them upright.
I very rarely fertilize my tree peonies, however, if you want to give them an extra boost, top dressing with bone meal or adding some rose fertilizer in the early fall will help the blooms in the spring.
Why Aren’t Your Tree Peonies Blooming?
One last note, it takes quite a while for tree peonies to get going.
You may not see any blooms for 3 or 4 years. This is normal so don’t get discouraged…when it does bloom, it will have been worth the wait!
The other main reason that tree peonies don’t bloom is pruning or flower deadheading done at the wrong time. The safest way to prune tree peonies is not to 🙂
Tree Peony Types
There are 3 common varieties of tree peonies plus one hybrid that combines characteristics from its parent tree peony and the standard herbaceous peony.
Peony suffruticosa is the most common of the tree peony varieties. It includes most of the hybridized plants that have been created recently, and are usually pink, purple, red or white in color.
Peony lutea is the only true yellow tree peony. It is a native variety that grows to about 6′ tall and wide and has smaller 2″ flowers. It does best in zones 7 and 8 as it tends to die back in the winter in cooler zones (although if you plant it in a sheltered location you may still have good luck with it).
Peony rockii or Gansu tree peonies are a subset of the Peony suffruticosa variety that is known for flowers that have purple centers.
It is native to the forests of Northwest China and prefers to be grown in the dappled shade that mimics its normal habitat.
This makes them perfect for growing in your shade garden at home.
Itoh peonies are a cross between a tree peony and a herbaceous peony.
They have the strong stems and large flowers of a tree peony but come back from the ground every year like a herbaceous peony.
This makes them a great choice if you want large blooms on a smaller sized plant.
Now I’m ready to go out and find a few more of these beauties for my garden…and hopefully, you are, too!
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This post was originally published on June 9, 2017 but was updated with new content on September 12, 2023.