Tree Peonies

Learn about tree peonies, a woody shrub with gorgeous blooms.

Paeonia suffruticosa ~Amber Moon~ (01) Bloom

Paeonia suffruticosa ~Amber Moon~ (01) Bloom

Paeonia suffruticosa ~Amber Moon~ (01)

Meet the beautiful shrub version of peonies—tree peonies. The common garden peony (Paeonia lactiflora) is a perennial that dies to the ground each year and resprouts from the plant crown, below soil. A tree peony is a deciduous woody shrub. It loses its leaves in fall, overwinters as bare twigs and new growth sprouts from buds on the twigs in spring.  

Tree peonies grow slowly, yielding from 1 to 6 inches of new growth each year. For this reason alone, gardeners who want a fast-growing shrub avoid planting a tree peony. A tree peony often takes two to three years to establish and start flowering strongly. It’s worth the wait, though, because a tree peony opens 8- to 9-inch-wide flowers with ruffled petals. They’re a spectacular site in bloom.  

Like other peonies, a tree peony is deer-resistant, and it’s also known for a long life. Revered and celebrated in its native land of China, the tree peony has been raised in gardens for thousands of years. This is one shrub that can live for centuries.  

A tree peony typically flowers sooner in the spring than garden peonies, as early as late April in some regions. This early flowering means that, in colder zones, tree peony buds can be nipped by late spring frosts. Tree peonies are hardy in Zones 4 to 9. In the colder zones, this beautiful shrub requires some pampering to survive winter. Most gardeners build a canvas screen around their tree peonies for winter to provide extra insulation against cold winds.  

In the garden, choose a spot that receives only four to six hours of direct sunlight throughout the day. Alternately, you can plant a tree peony in a site that receives dappled sunlight all day. Plants grow best when they’re in a somewhat protected location—protected from hot afternoon sun and drying winds. An ideal exposure for a tree peony faces north, south or west.  

A mature tree peony can grow four to five feet wide. Take care not to plant a tree peony too close to a tree that could shade the plant as the tree grows. Just to be safe, place a tree peony at least eight to 10 feet from a tree. Space individual tree peonies three to five feet apart, depending on the type you’re planting.  

A tree peony can grow five to seven feet tall, but most decades-old plants top out between three and five feet. Many gardeners choose to plant tall tree peonies because they grow faster than the dwarf versions. Tall tree peonies typically grow five to six inches each year, while dwarf versions grow less than an inch. But in coldest zones, it’s easier to protect a smaller plant, so you might want to consider growing a mid-height (5 feet) or dwarf (3 feet) tree peony.  

Established tree peonies are drought-resistant. Avoid placing them in an area that receives frequent watering from an automated irrigation system. Many tree peonies die from overwatering. Check soil moisture about 6 inches deep (use a trowel to dig into soil) to determine if it needs watered. Many times the top inch or two of soil is dry, while it’s still moist at a greater depth. 

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