Recommended Peony Species

All peonies hail from from north of the equator–from the Mediterranean to Siberia, and from western China to the western United States. Nomenclatural shifting is still very much in effect, but the number of species hovers around 30, with an additional 8 species of tree peonies. In the wild, they are usually found happily growing in open woodland on slopes, where drainage is good and they are protected during the hottest part of the day. In my garden, I’ve had luck growing them under these conditions.

“My peony-collecting frenzy started with P. mlokosewitchi (fondly refered to as “Molly the Witch”). Fortunately, this is not only one of the most beautiful, it is also easy to grow.”

Growing Species Peonies

Collecting and growing species peonies is one of my most rewarding passions. A few did not thrive (and with a little research I was able to figure out why) but most are staunch, undemanding favorites in my garden. One thing I learned early on is that, unlike the common cultivars, most species do not do well with full sun during the heat of the summer. Give them a slightly cooler situation and they thrive. After all, as a rule they originate from montain areas.

Another consideration for success is good drainage. A few, such as P. mlokosewitschi and P. wittmanniana don’t mind a little excess moisture, but when trying out a new species, it’s best to err on the side of providing extra good drainage. Here in the Pacific Northwest that can be a bit challenging, given our very wet winters. On the other hand, they seem not to mind our very dry summers, needing only a little supplemental watering. A few of the more challenging varieties, including many from the Mediterranean, will need a more specialized growing area, such as a raised scree bed with perfect drainage.

Getting Started

My peony-collecting frenzy started with P. mlokosewitchi (fondly refered to as “Molly the Witch”). Fortunately, this is not only one of the most beautiful, it is also easy to grow. Because of that, it is relatively less scarce– occasionally being offered at specialty nurseries. Thus, my first encounter was a resounding success–an important condition for continued interest!

Of one thing I can assure you– species peonies are hard to find, and you won’t find them cheap!. Mine I’ve found by haunting specialty plant sales, where you’ll pay plenty for a relatively little plant. The expense is justified. Peonies cannot be tissue-cultured. They must either be divided from a mother plant (and who wants to carve up their special plant for a meager 5 or more pots to sell) or grown from seed, which takes time (see How To Grow Peonies From Seed)! How and where you acquire them is also important (for reasons why, read Species Peonies–The Identity Crisis).

Because they are expensive, if possible you should bring a reference book with you on your peony-hunting expeditions. Also, ask questions!The biggest advantage to buying from small growers and at plant sales is that usually whoever you are purchasing from also grew the plant, and knows all about it. With a little education, you can avoid the more challenging species until you are ready for them, which will give you the satisfaction of success early on.

The Best Species To Start With

As with any new venture, early successes will encourage you to delve further. Here’s a short list of some of the more readily availablespecies that are also easy to grow.

Paeonia peregrina
Native to Italy and the Balkan Peninsula all the way to central Turkey, this species has bright luminous red blooms with coral undertones. It is easily grown from fresh seed, and can often be found for sale in nurseries. Named cultivars include P. ‘Peregrine Sunshine’ and P. ‘Fire King’, both exceptional plants that also set seed. Whatever you do, though, don’t make this plant sit in frequently soggy soil, or you will lose it.
Paeonia mlokosewitschii
A little hard to find, but well worth the search, the famous “Molly the Witch” peony is a must-have for any collection. While it is readily grown from fresh seed, you’re better off acquiring a full-grown flowering plant if you want that signature moonglow yellow color. Seedlings vary widely from light pink thru apricot to yellow, something that they also do in the wild. P. mlokosewitschii is native to east Georgia, where it grows among rocks on open slopes in Lagodekhi.
Paeonia officinalis
The longest known and cultivated peony in Europe (see A Brief History of Peonies), it is also one of the most taxonomically confused. There are numerous subspecies and many cultivars. All of them are easy and rewarding garden plants, thought some are easier to obtain than others. P. officinalis subsp. villosa (often sold as P. mollis) is a great one to start with. Native frombsouthern France to central Italy, it sets seed readily, and the progeny are quite variable.
Paeonia obovata
An Asian species with a long history of medicinal use on that continent, P. obovata and its subspecies are both beautiful and easily grown, if not so easily acquired. Unlike other species, the leaves are rounder at the tip and narrower at the base (ie obovate), an important distinguishing feature. Its native range extends from East Russia all the way to Japan. All are charming plants that prefer part shade and good drainage.
Paeonia veitchii
This one will present a challenge to acquire, but is well worth the effort, and not only because possessing one is a feather in the collector’s cap. It has all the appearances of a delicate woodland plant, with more finely divided foliage ferny foliage (though not as fern-leaved as P. tenuifolia, a species I have found very difficult to grow.) The flowers are a sweet raspberry pink, and while they are smaller than those of other species, there are usually two or three to a stem. P. veitchii is native to alpine fields of Sichuan, Gansu and other Chinese provinces.

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