Species Peonies: The Identity Crisis

Why are so many peony species misidentified? Some growers don’t know much about what they’re selling–especially large commercial growers. They’ve heard of the trend and figure they can give it a try. They bring in some starts or seeds from dubious sources, and fire up the marketing machine. Of all the species peonies I’ve purchased, the most aggregiously misnamed came from large growers, complete with fancy color photo tags. If you want accuracy, your best bet is to buy directly from someone who grows the plant themselves and can tell you about them–those reliable, humble folks at specialty plant sales.

“Of all the species peonies I’ve purchased, the most aggregiously misnamed came from large growers, complete with fancy color photo tags.”

But the problem isn’t as simple as just knowing the plants. Species peonies interbreed with abandon. When acquiring a seedling, ask whether the mother plant was hand-pollinated (ie under strict controls by the gardener, herself) or open-pollinated (ie by bees and nature). If open-pollinated, and the grower has many different plants, there is a reasonable chance your seedling is a hybrid. In fact, you could go even further and say that there is no real way to be sure its the true species unless it was grown from seeds of wild plants.

Wait! There’s at least one more problem! In the world of taxonomy, peonies have been reclassified, renamed, and reshuffled thousands of times. Many different versions of names abound still. Here’s a great example. I was having trouble identifying one of my plants, and sent an email to the American Peony Society for help. I was eventually connected to Reiner Jakubowski, the organization’s registrar (feeling quite humbled and appreciative of his assistance).

Mr. Jakubowski suggested it might be one he’d purchased as Paeonia officinalis ‘Mollis’. A little research, and I pretty much agreed, but it didn’t really help clarify things because, officially, no such plant exists. There are however, as he explained, two different plants that could be called Paeonia mollis–One, P. officinalis subsp. villosa, which was once called P. mollis before it was downgraded to subspecies status, and two, a totally different plant mentioned in F. C. Sterns 1946 monograph “A Study of the Genus Paeonia”. So which one am I looking at pictures of on the internet labeled P. officinalis ‘Mollis’?

All this to say it is pretty complicated once you start getting into the nitty gritty of peony id. But if you ask me, that is all part of the fun of getting to know them!

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