Peonies; divide and conquer

A fernleaf peony will produce an abundance of small, dark red, double flowers on a dwarf plant with finely divided foliage. Photo Courtesy Sara Williams.

by Sara Williams
Saskatchewan Perennial Society

Peonies have adorned our prairie farmsteads for over a century. They are well-behaved, long lived (sixty years in not unusual), often fragrant, drought-tolerant once established, of easy care, make excellent cut flowers, and are deer and rabbit resistant – of special value to rural gardeners.

First introduced to Europe from China in 1784, they are native to the Northern Hemisphere with species found in Europe, Asia and even the northwest coast of North America. The vast majority of our modern garden hybrids are descendants of species originating in China and Japan.

Although the availability of containerized plants has extended the planting season considerably, peonies are best moved and divided in mid-September. Each root division should contain three to five “eyes” or buds (generally pink in colour and easily identified) and a portion of the thick fleshy root. When dividing, first cut off the stems at ground level. Then dig up the entire clump. (Alternatively, half can be left where it is, and the remainder dug up, divided and moved.) Both roots and stems will be brittle. To avoid breakage, let the clump sit for a couple of hours to become more pliable. Then divide it using a sharp knife. Washing off or removing excess soil makes the job easier and the process more visible.

Dig a generous planting hole in well drained soil to which organic matter has been added in the form of compost, well rotted manure or peat moss. Space peonies about 1.3 m (4 ft.) apart to accommodate their mature spread. Although full sun is generally recommended, they will also perform well in afternoon shade.

Ensure that the buds or eyes are covered with no more than 5 cm (2 in.) of soil. Planting too deep is the most frequent cause of their failure to bloom. Keep in mind that peonies seldom bloom the first year after planting, and if they do, these flowers may not be typical of those of a mature plant.

Peony ‘Bowl of Beauty’. Photo Courtesy Sara Williams

When selecting peonies, choose various colours and times of bloom for a longer more interesting season. All are spring blooming but are further classified as early, mid, or late within that time frame. Most mature at 75 to 90 cm (30 to 36 in.) in height. 

I prefer the single or Japanese types. Single peonies have one or more rows of large petals surrounding the pollen-bearing stamens in the centre. Japanese forms are similar but the stamens have been changed to non pollen-bearing, petal-like staminoides, often of a contrasting colour.  I like the simplicity of form and stronger stems of these types that require neither staking nor hoops.

[The flowers of many of the older double varieties tend to flop in the dirt when hammered by wind or rain. As well, fully double flowers can collect and hold rain or irrigation water, causing an increase in weight, leading to bending and breakage.]

Some of my favourites:

  • The fernleaf peony (Paeonia tenuifolia ‘Rubra Plena’): an abundance of small, dark red, double flowers on a dwarf plant with finely divided foliage; very early.
  • ‘Bowl of Beauty’ (1949): Japanese; fuchsia-rose petals surround a creamy yellow centre; mid to late.
  • ‘Claire de Lune’ (1954): single, ivory-yellow with orange anthers, cup-shaped flowers; thin, straight stiff stems; early.
  • ‘Do Tell’ (1946): Japanese; orchid-pink outer petals surrounding a centre of darker rose-pink; strong plant with good foliage; mid to late.
  • ‘Early Scout’ (1952): dark red, single with dense ferny foliage; very early.
  • ‘Flame’ (1939): my very favourite; single, hot pink with orange tones, cup-shaped flowers; good foliage and strong straight stems; early.
  • ‘Gay Paree’ (1933): Japanese, cerise-pink with a creamy white centre; late.
  • ‘Jan van Leeuwen’ (1928): Japanese; white flowers on strong stems; very late.
  • ‘John Harvard’ (1939): single to semi-double, deep red; strong stems; early.
  • ‘Largo’ (1929): Japanese; soft medium pink flowers around a central ball; strong stems; mid.
  • ‘Moon of Nippon’ (1936): Japanese; white petals, a yellow centre and stiff stems; mid.
  • ‘Nosegay’ (1950): single, pale salmon pink; deeply divided foliage; early.
  • ‘Requiem’ (1941): single, waxy white petals; mid.

Sara Williams is the author and coauthor of many books including Creating the Prairie Xeriscape, Gardening Naturally with Hugh Skinner and, with Bob Bors, the recently published Growing Fruit in Northern Gardens. She continues to give workshops on a wide range of gardening topics throughout the prairies.

This column is provided courtesy of the Saskatchewan Perennial Society (SPS; ). Check our website ( or Facebook page ( for a list of upcoming gardening events.