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Paeonia suffruticosa; photo courtesy of Flickr cc/Ting Chen
Paeonia suffruticosa; photo courtesy of Flickr cc/Ting Chen

Growing Tree Peonies

Sometimes, a flower can be more than just a beautiful, fleeting thing. It can be a cultural symbol, a muse, or an obsession. The tree peony (Paeonia suffruticosa) is all of the above.

Known as mudan in its native China, the tree peony has been grown and revered by Chinese herbalists, gardeners, artists and nobility for more than 1,500 years. The first written record of mudan, in an ancient Chinese materia medica, described the medicinal value of the plant.The tree peony's great beauty soon eclipsed its utility and mudan became so important in Chinese culture that it was named the national flower of China in 1994. Fortunately for American gardeners, tree peonies have made the long journey from the apothecaries and palace gardens of China to the beds and borders of this country.

What is a tree peony? It is not, as its name implies, a tree. It is a medium-sized, spreading shrub with fern-like, deciduous leaves and unimaginably large and often fragrant flowers. Cultivated tree peonies are hybrids of a number of woody peony species native to the mountains of central and western China.

Centuries of tree peony breeding and selection have created a range of garden plants with names that sound as exotic as their flowers smell and look. A gardener can grow tree peonies called 'Green Dragon Lying on a Chinese Ink Stone', 'Tipsy Imperial Concubine', or 'Princess Zhao Marries Beyond the Great Wall'. No matter what a tree peony is called, it takes some thoughtful care to grow it successfully.

Peaonia suffruticosa 'Smiling in the Thicket' at NYBG; photo by Ivo Vermeulen
Peaonia suffruticosa 'Smiling in the Thicket' at NYBG; photo by Ivo Vermeulen

In general, tree peonies thrive in fertile, moist but well-drained soil and partial shade. Since tree peonies planted in spring may not have enough time to develop the roots they need to support a new flush of growth, they should be planted or moved in fall. Plants should be mulched and watered-in thoroughly after planting. If well planted and given some protection, these wonderful plants can withstand temperatures as low as -20°F.

Once planted, tree peonies need little maintenance other than judicious watering, deadheading and the removal of spent foliage from around the plant in fall to prevent fungal infections. Tree peonies grow very slowly but can reach a height of over four feet with an even greater spread. Their slow growth and an ill-deserved reputation for being tricky to grow has kept them from becoming widely available in the nursery trade. Fortunately, discerning plants-people have made a commitment to educating American gardeners about the many virtues of tree peonies and providing plants to those who want to include the magical mudan in their gardens.

Paeonia suffruticosa 'Multi-colored Butterfly'; photo by Ivo Vermeulen
Paeonia suffruticosa 'Multi-colored Butterfly'; photo by Ivo Vermeulen

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