The King of Flowers

by Nancy Rose
May 31, 2016

tree peony flower

The King of Flowers

tree peony Impumon flowers

Tree peony ‘Impu-mon’ (1049-61*A) bears large carmine flowers. Photo by Nancy Rose

Herbaceous peonies (Paeonia lactiflora, P. officinalis, and hybrids) are often associated with Memorial Day since they usually start blooming in late May and are popular as cemetery decorations at this time of year. The Arboretum does have a handful of herbaceous peonies in the Leventritt Shrub and Vine Garden but, since our emphasis is on woody plants, we have many more tree peonies [pdf] than herbaceous peonies in our collection. Tree peonies bloom before herbaceous peonies, and flowering specimens can now be seen in the Explorers Garden, near the Centre Street gate, and in the Leventritt Shrub and Vine Garden.


Paeonia ostii (221-2000*B) is one of the wild species included in some tree peony cultivars. Photo by William Friedman

Despite the name, tree peonies are actually small (rarely over 6 feet tall), sparsely branched, slow-growing deciduous shrubs. Cultivated tree peonies are listed under the name Paeonia suffruticosa, which is really a hybrid group involving several wild Chinese peony species including P. cathayana, P. ostii, and P. rockii [pdf]. Records show that tree peonies were cultivated in China as long as 1,400 years ago, and centuries of subsequent breeding around the world have resulted in hundreds of named cultivars.

Tree peonies are treasured for their exquisite large flowers (often 6 or more inches wide) that may have single, semi-double, or double forms. Cultivars are available in a fabulous range of colors from white to pink, red, coral, purple, and yellow, and many are delightfully fragrant. It’s no wonder they were deemed the king of flowers in ancient China, and are still considered so today.

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