Tree Peonies

Ask most gardeners about tree peonies and the first thing they’ll tell you is that they are difficult to grow. But as local grower and tree peony specialist Ron Boekel explains, that reputation is really unjust, and tree peonies can be just as easy to grow as any other popular garden shrub, provided you know the secret.

“The secret is Lime – and plenty of it”, says Ron. While most Australian soils are fairly acidic, at around 6 – 6.5 ph, tree peonies evolved in the poor, limestone based soils of north-western China, and prefer a much more alkaline soil. Ron says that to get the best results from your peonies you should first add 8-10 handfuls of dolomite lime to the planting hole, which will ensure vigorous growth and healthy stems for many years.

Tree peonies bear large flowers in profusion on small, compact bushes that grow to a maximum height of around a metre, depending on variety. Try using contrasting colours, such as yellows with black-reds and purples. The flowers can be cut and will keep in water for several days, and look great as a table centrepiece when floated on a bowl of water like a waterlily flower. Growing a mix of tree peony varieties will ensure a mix of flowers over a long period. Tree peonies can also be grown in tubs, but it is important to note that most commercially available potting mixes are fairly acidic and therefore require copious amounts of lime to be added before planting.

Ron recommends keeping the plant in its pot until about April, then planting it in a well-drained soil that has had the addition of dolomite lime. Plant your tree peonies in a position that receives morning sun, as the flowers will last longer if there is protection from harsh afternoon sun. A surface mulch will help to keep the roots cool. Apply the mulch around the root zone, allowing space around the crown for your peony to grow. Remove dead leaves as they fall in the autumn, taking care not to damage the buds on the main plant. Tree peonies are fairly drought tolerant, but if you keep the water up to tree peonies, especially during flowering, you will help to promote healthy growth. When plants reach several years of age you may start to notice some yellowing of the leaves, if this occurs an application of a few more handfuls of lime around the top of the soil is required.

Grown for Australian Conditions

Ron Boekel’s success with tree peonies has come through many years of trial and error, and when you purchase a tree peony grown by Ron, you know you are getting a plant that has been grown to flourish in Australian conditions. Ron has concentrated on growing the more spectacular Japanese and American Lutea varieties, developing his techniques all the while. Although the American and European growers have resorted to grafting their peonies, Ron has concentrated his efforts into developing plants able to grow healthily on their own rootstock.

Provided you follow the simple growing directions, which you’ll receive free with each tree peony purchased, you should have no problems with any of the varieties he grows. Ron divides his plants in June, and as with the grafted magnolias he produces, he insists on doing every division himself. The divisions are sorted into three sizes, with the largest being marked for sale early in the season, the medium sized divisions are grown on until late in the season and the smallest being held over for twelve months before sale. This ensures that every plant is well established for sale before it reaches the nursery.

Tree Peony terms

Single Flower

Single to Semi-Double Flower

Full Double Flower

Japanese, European And American Tree Peony Varieties

Tree Peonies differ from the more commonly grown herbaceous peonies in that they don’t die down each winter, instead shedding their leaves back to woody stems that survive the winter. The other major difference between the two is that tree peonies have a much larger range of flower colours to choose from. Tree Peonies can be split into three distinctive groups, the Japanese, European and American Lutea hybrids, each with their own unique attributes. The most finicky are the larger flowered Japanese varieties, which flower first in mid-spring. They have broad, divided leaves and generally have been bred to produce single or semi-double flowers.

The next to flower are the similar European hybrids. Their flower colours range from pure white to subtle shadings of pink, rose, cherry, purple, salmon, maroon, scarlet and red, and they differ from the Japanese varieties in that they have mostly been bred to produce full double flowers. In the autumn the leaves often turn to shades of scarlet, coral and bronze before falling in the winter. Popular Japanese hybrids include ‘Destiny’, a large single to semi double white flower with purple-mauve blotches, and ‘Rimpo’, a very large single to semi-double flowered variety of rich magenta-purple with black inner flares and gold anthers. European varieties worth noting include ‘Ettienne de France’, which has fragrant double lilac-pink blooms and was one of the first introductions to Australia, and the equally exquisite ‘Kinshe’, a stunning double yellow flower edged with apricot-red.

The later flowering American Lutea varieties are generally easier to grow, and although the flowers are usually slightly smaller than the Japanese varieties, they more than make up for it with a vivid range of colours including bold oranges, black-reds and yellow. The foliage is also more finely divided and spectacular autumn colour. ‘Black Panther’ is a beautiful double black-red flowering variety with attractive foliage, while ‘Happy Days’ has semi-double blooms of yellow suffused with rosy-red on a tall, attractive bush.

Peonies do all their growing and food storage during the coldest months of the year. While the ground is cold or even frozen during winter, the peonies are happily sending roots out and storing energy for the summer. Once the leaves have emerged and flowering has begun, the roots become dormant. By the time the harsh heat of summer arrives the plant can survive on stored energy. What this means is that an NPK fertiliser and Ferrous Sulphate (iron), which peonies love, should be applied during the four coldest months of the year.

Tree Peonies Now Available:

Ron’s Recommendations for Australian Gardens

Japanese / European

Ettiene de France
lilac-pink, very large double, fragrant
Large single to semi double white with deep purple blotches. Early flowering.
Fully doubled suffused orange red, very hardy
Very large double yellow tipped and edged apricot-red. Very hardy, good cut flowers.
Le’ Esperance
Very vigorous & hardy. Medium size bright yellow with red inner flares.
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Very large single to semi double. Magenta-purple with black inner flares.
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Large single to semi double black-red, prominent gold centre.
Age of Gold
Vigorous, bright yellow doubles held upright, bright orange autumn foliage.
Happy Days
Yellow semi-double suffused with rosy red. Yellow underside.
Black Panther
Very rare, limited numbers. Double dark mahogany-crimson.
Medium single deep crimson with black top, finely cut foliage.
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Peonies available this season

Age of Gold
Ettiene de France
Happy Days
Alice Harding
Le Esperance
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Plus 4 new varieties from Ron (photos coming soon!)
Has a semi double strawberry red flower
A a semi double crimson hybrid.
A a beautiful single black flower with yellow anthers.
A splendid red wine fused with ivory.

Tree Peonies are generally available for sale by order from Hello Hello Plants & Garden Supplies. To order a particular variety, please email or call us first, as some varieties are in limited supply.