by Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall


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Peonies by Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall

With their dramatically showy flowers, Peonies are among the most sumptuous blooms in the garden. These lush perennials work their enchantment every day of the year in this gorgeous-and practical-full-color gardening book. Award-winning garden designer Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall provides advice on planting 200 varieties of peonies; extensive lists detailing size, flower shape, and color of both tree and herbaceous peonies; garden plans; and a Top Ten list selecting peonies for fragrance, cut flowers, autumn color, early, late, and long flowering, robustness, and much more. With stunning illustrations and information on peon ies' history around the world, their depiction in fine and decorative art, and their use in 20th-century gardens created by Gertrude Jekyll, William Robinson, and other notable designers, Peonies will delight gardeners everywhere.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810943544
Publisher: Abrams, Harry N., Inc.
Publication date: 11/01/1999
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 7.75(w) x 10.00(h) x 1.62(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One



... there, balancing rarely amid the brushwood, shone out to me
the huge expanded goblet of Paeonia Moutan, refulgent as pure
snow and fragrant as heavenly roses.

Reginald Farrer, Gardener's Chronicle VOL. 56 (1914).

THE STORY OF THE PEONY begins with peony species in the wild. As the tale unfolds we will see how, seduced by their beauty, connoisseurs in China brought them into cultivation and invested in hybridizing programmes to produce larger, fuller flowers in an ever-widening range of colours. The work was continued by twentieth-century plant breeders whose passion was the refinement of earlier hybrids and the introduction of new flower shapes and colours. As a result of their work many hundreds of highly-bred garden peonies are available today. But they all have their origins in a few wild species.

    Both wild and cultivated peonies belong to one of two types: herbaceous peonies and tree peonies. The familiar garden peonies of Europe and North America are herbaceous; their leaves wither and die in autumn and new shoots emerge from beneath the ground every spring. The growth remains comparatively soft and sappy all summer. The second category, misleadingly known as 'tree peonies' are deciduous woody shrubs. They are not trees, being invariably multi-stemmed and seldom growing taller than 2 or 2.5 m (6 or 8 ft). Many have beautifully shaped and coloured leaves.

   Hybrids and cultivated varieties of both tree and herbaceous peonies have flowers ranging from single to very full double, but the wild species from which they are bred all have single flowers with a simplicity of outline and purity of colour that give some of them great appeal as garden plants. Most have the bonus of attractive and healthy foliage.

    Describing flowers can be a difficult challenge: throughout this book I avoid using technical terms as much as I can, but verbal descriptions of flowers and leaves inevitably refer to botanical parts. They are identified on the diagram opposite.

    The history of peonies starts with geography: two rather insignificant species are native to America. The rest are distributed through the northern hemisphere from Europe to China and Japan via Siberia, the Caucasus and northern India. Exploration and research still throws up evidence from time to time prompting botanists to change their opinions as to which plants are genuine species. A change in name is often the result, which can be confusing to the gardener, especially when the changes have not filtered through to nurseries and other sources of supply. Allan Rogers unravels the complexities of Paeonia species and subspecies in the third chapter of his book Peonies, and I can recommend his account to readers who would like more technical details than I have space for here.


Peonies have been cultivated in China for at least 1,500 years, initially probably for the medicinal qualities of their roots. By the sixth century AD Chinese civilization had reached the degree of sophistication at which flowers are appreciated for their beauty as well as their usefulness. The richness and diversity of China's native plants is truly amazing, but even among such embarras de richesse the startling size and lovely colouring of peony flowers made them prime candidates for introduction into the gardens and houses of ruling families, wealthy civil servants and merchants. Some of the most beautiful herbaceous peonies are to be found in China, including P. lactiflora, the parent of most garden hybrids and varieties. From this one simple flower come numberless permutations from single to very double, from white through every shade of pink to deepest black crimson. This Chinese peony has also contributed the precious gift of scent to its successors. China is also the unique home of the wild Moutan or tree peony from which all others are bred.


Paeonia delavayi is round in pine forests in the Lijiang mountain range in North Yunnan province at altitudes of 3,050 to 3,650 m (10,000 to 12,000 ft) and was discovered by the French missionary Père Jean Marie Delavay in 1884. The rather bare stems can reach 1.75 m (5 ft 6 in). The flowers, appearing over a comparatively long period in late spring and early summer, vary in colour from darkest black maroon to a lighter blood red. It is a variable plant in cultivation as well as in the wild; a good form can be spectacular, but the flowers are often small and can be hidden among the leaves. Their dark colouring has made them important in the breeding of garden hybrids, and the much-dissected leaves make P. delavayi an attractive shrub, if a plant from a good strain can be obtained. The Royal Horticultural Society has given it an Award of Garden Merit. Although hardy to US Zone 5, it seldom flowers in climates colder than Zones 7 or 8.

    Paeonia jishanensis was first found by the British collector William Purdom in Shaanxi Province in 1910. Originally thought to be a variety of P. suffruticosa, it grows to 1.2 m (4 ft). The flowers, borne singly in mid and late spring, have ten white petals, sometimes shaded pink towards the base.

    Paeonia lutea is another of Père Delavay's 1884 discoveries, found on Mount Hea Chan Men in Yunnan and in the mountains above Dali at overlapping and slightly higher altitudes than P. delavayi. The plants are similar in some ways, and may be two forms of the same species. They can never be confused when in flower, for P. lutea lives up to its name with single flowers of bright, clear yellow. They have the bonus of a lemony scent but they share with P. delavayi a reluctance to flower in climates below Zone 7.

    Paeonia lutea var. ludlowii is a fine form found near the Tsango gorges in southeast Xizang, Tibet in 1936 by the British plant hunters Frank Ludlow (a Londoner) and Major George Sherriff, a Scottish soldier. At 2.5 m (8 ft) tall by up to 4 m (13 ft) wide it needs a large garden to show off its great sculptural leaves and large yellow flowers. It flowers very well in New Zealand. It is quite hardy; although it may be cut to the ground by frost it will sprout again.

    Paeonia ostii is now an endangered species. Named after the Italian botanist Dr Gian Osti, it comes from Gansu, Anhui, Shaanxi and Henan provinces in north China. It is a hardy shrub growing to 1.5 m (5 ft) with grey-brown bark, lance-shaped leaflets and, in mid-spring, flowers up to 15 cm (6 in) across, pure white sometimes faintly tinged with pink, without basal blotches. Like P. jishanensis it has purplish-red filaments, disc and style.

    Paeonia potaninii is a compact shrub reaching 1 m (3 ft) at most. It grows in north-west Yunnan and west Sichuan. It was named in memory of the eminent Russian explorer and naturalist Grigori Potanin in 1921. It has the unique characteristic of spreading by underground stolons and bears attractive, deeply-divided leaves and quite small brownish-red flowers. There is a white-flowered form, P. potaninii 'Alba', and a highly desirable form with delicate yellow flowers which is called P. potaninii trollioides.

    Paeonia rockii is a famous and very beautiful plant with a history that demonstrates the difficulties botanists experience in identifying and naming species. P. rockii or another almost identical tree peony reached Europe from China as a garden plant on Captain James Prendergast's ship Hope in 1802. It seems not to have been named. It was first recorded in the wild in 1914 when Reginald Farrer, the English plant hunter, writer and artist, described seeing it (see page 95) near the border between south Gansu and Shaanxi. It was not collected, but placed, from Farrer's description, as a form of Paeonia suffruticosa. Today plants previously described as members of this very variable species are thought to be crosses between four wild species identified and named by the distinguished Chinese botanist Professor Hong Tao and his colleagues in 1992. So P. suffruticosa no longer exists. Two of the 'new' species (P. jishanensis and P. ostii) are described above and a description of the third, P. yananensis follows below.

    The fourth species identified by Hong Tao is P. rockii. It is the plant Farrer saw in 1914, rediscovered in 1926 growing in a Tibetan monastery in south west Gansu by the American collector Dr Joseph Rock. It is a leggy shrub about 2 m (6 ft) tall and nearly as wide. The fragrant flowers carried at the tip of each stem, are of stunning beauty, up to 16 cm (6 in) wide with white petals bruised at their bases with deep black-maroon blotches, surrounding a crown of golden-yellow anthers on purple and white stamens.

    Rock's find was celebrated as P. suffruticosa 'Rock's Variety' or P. s. 'Joseph Rock', names considered correct until Professor Hong published his findings in 1992. It is now generally agreed that Paeonia rockii is a species in its own right. Whatever name it goes under, it is lovely but not easy to grow or to propagate, and young plants are rare and expensive.

    Paeonia suffruticosa is a species that is no longer recognized, as explained under P. rockii above. But 'suffruticosa' is a useful umbrella term for a group of tree peonies that have more in common with each other than they do with P. delavayi or P. lutea.

    Paeonia yananensis is the remaining member of Professor Hong's quartet, from the arid hills of Yan'an district of Shaanxi Province. Yan'an is revered as the finishing point of the Long March and was the Communist headquarters in the war against Japan. The peony is only 40 cm (16 in) high with divided, rounded leaflets. The flowers are sometimes white, sometimes pale purplish rose with a dark red blotch at the base.

    In addition to these Chinese species of tree peony, there are others likely to be universally accepted before long: Paeonia qiui is similar to P. jishanensis except for some differences in the leaves. P. szechuanica and P. yunnanensis were described in 1958 by the Chinese botanist Fang Wen-Pei, but are hot yet familiar to botanists in the West.


Although the Moutan or tree peony has always been first favourite in China, herbaceous peonies come a close second; both kinds are valued and are collected for use as medicine as well as for their ornamental qualities, and are therefore increasingly rare in the wild.

    Paeonia beresowskii, named by the Russian botanist Vladimir Komarov in 1921, is very similar to P. veitchii and grows in the same region, but it may be a separate species as the hybrids from each of the two plants have quite distinct characteristics. See under P. veitchii.

    Paeonia lactiflora (P. albiflora, P. chinensis) is the ancestor of thousands of garden varieties and by far the most influential peony. It covers a vast area from Siberia and Mongolia to northern China and parts of Tibet. It's territory is steppe grassland and scrub and it is very hardy provided it grows in free-draining ground. The light green stems, flushed with red, reach 60 cm (24 in). They carry smooth, dark green leaves divided into lance-shaped leaflets. From early to mid-summer two or more white flowers up to 10 cm (4 in) across, bloom on each stem, hence the earlier name of P. albiflora (white flower). The German explorer Peter Pallas gave it this name in 1788, forgetting he had named the same plant P. lactiflora (milk flower) in 1776. It is a strict botanical rule that the earliest name takes precedence, so in due course, to the consternation of those who had grown to know and love P. albiflora, it became P. lactiflora. It has contributed autumn colour to the leaves and scent to the flowers of many of its descendants. Roy Lancaster notes in Travels in China that this peony was still quite common in the wild in the Changbai Shan reserve in Jilin Province when he was there in 1984.

    Paeonia mairei is not in cultivation but is known from herbarium specimens. It grows in the mountains of north Yunnan and west Sichuan. The plant reaches about 45 cm (18 in) and has rose-pink flowers about 10 cm (4 in) across, one to each stem in late spring and early summer.

    Paeonia obovata is a native of mountain woodland and scrub in Siberia, China, Japan and Korea. The seeds of the first plants introduced to Europe were collected by E H Wilson in 1900 in Hupeh Province. The flower petals are shaped like the blunt end of an egg (obovate) and the flowers, up to 7 cm (3 in) wide, vary in colour from white to purplish red. The seeds are dark blue berries and the leaves continue to grow after the plant has flowered. In its white form (P. obovata var. alba) it holds the Royal Horticultural Society Award of Garden Merit.

    Paeonia sinjiangensis is a native of the province of Xinjiang and was only discovered in 1979. It shares characteristics with P. anomala and P. veitchii but carries only one flower on each stem.

    Paeonia veitchii was collected by E H Wilson for the Veitch nursery in London in 1907. It grows in grassland and scrub at 2,400 to 3,000 m (7,900 to 9,850 ft) in Gansu, Shaanxi and Sichuan Provinces. Like P. anomala (see below under 'Central Asia and Siberia') it has intricately cut leaves, but it differs in carrying two or more flowers to each stem, varying in colour from sort pink to magenta, in early summer. The height varies between 20 and 50 cm (8 and 20 in). The smaller P. veitchii var. woodwardii is more likely to be available as a garden plant. It is a brave little plant from windswept country grazed by yaks at 2,700 to 3,500 m (9,000 to 11,000 ft) near Zhoni in Gansu Province. Rabbits and deer have an aversion to peonies, and apparently the aversion is shared by yaks. The plants are just 30 cm (12 in) high with rose-pink flowers. P. beresowskii (see above) is very similar to P. veitchii.


There are no tree peonies native to Japan but Chinese species were introduced by Buddhists from about AD 734. They are known there as Botan or Bhotan, and in due course many hybrids of great elegance and charm were developed in Japan. Comparatively few found their way to European and American gardens but recently there has been increased traffic between enthusiasts, passing in particular from east to west.


Paeonia japonica is native of the northern islands of Japan and was first described in 1910. It grows in the mountains at 950-1,300 m (3,120-4,260 ft) in forests of deciduous trees. This species is similar to P. obovata but smaller. The flowers are always white. In Japan it is called 'Yama-shakuyaku'.

    Paeonia obovata Described under 'China' above.


The rather harsh conditions that peonies seem to prefer are round on the lower slopes of the Himalayas from Afghanistan to southern Tibet, in areas where just enough shelter is provided by woodland or scrub.


Paeonia emodi must be a wonderful sight in the wild. It inhabits forest clearings in the mountains of Afghanistan, Kashmir and North Pakistan at altitudes of 1,500 to 3,200 m (4,260 to 6,230 ft), making handsome, leafy clumps about 75 cm (30 in) high. In late spring each stem carries between two and four large white flowers with yellow stamens, each flower up to 12 cm (5 in) wide. Though perfectly hardy, it is not easy to grow. The best chance of success is in semi-shade, protected from early morning sun.

    Paeonia sterniana was collected by Frank Ludlow in the Tsangpo Valley in southeast Tibet at an altitude of about 9,500 ft (3,000 m). It is not unlike P. emodi but there is just one flower with white, tissue-paper petals to each stem. Blue seeds bursting out of bright red capsules add excitement in autumn. Unfortunately, it is not commercially available.


Table of Contents

CHAPTER 1 Out of the Wilderness: wild peony species in four continents
CHAPTER 4 The Peony Travels West: plant explorers and their patrons
CHAPTER 5 Embarras de Richesse: the Peony in Europe
CHAPTER 8 Designing with Peonies: a scented walk
CHAPTER 9 Peonies Indoors: the flower arranger's flower
Over 80 of the best
Others commercially available
125 of the best
Others commercially available
CHAPTER 10 Where and how to plant peonies
CHAPTER 11 Aftercare, trouble-shooting and propagation
APPENDIX B Where to buy peonies: an international list of nurseries.

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