How to Grow Chinese Peonies (Paeonia lactiflora)

How to Grow the Common Garden Peony

Agnes Mary Kelway peonies flowers with white and light purple petals closeup

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

In areas where winters are cold enough to induce plant dormancy, no garden is complete without peonies. The most popular peony of all is the common garden peony, also called Chinese peony. It has been cultivated for centuries and there are several thousand cultivars and hybrids.

What’s special about peonies is that their stems often have a primary flower bud, which blooms first, followed by smaller side buds so you get to enjoy their spectacular flowers for longer.

It may take up to three years for peonies to get established and bloom, but you’ll be rewarded for your patience with a long-lasting perennial flower. Peonies are extremely long lived—they can get more than 100 years old.

Botanical Name  Paeonia lactiflora
Common Name Chinese peony, common garden peony
Plant Type Herbaceous perennial
Mature Size Two to three feet height, two to three feet width
Sun Exposure Full sun to partial shade
Soil Type Sandy, silt, loamy
Soil pH 6.5 to 7
Bloom Time Late spring to early summer
Flower Color Pink red, white
Hardiness Zones 3-8
Native Area China, Siberia

How to Grow Chinese Peonies

When planting peonies, generous spacing and good air circulation are crucial because overcrowding encourages the spread of diseases. Chinese peonies are planted just like other peonies, which is described here.

The flower heads of peonies are large and heavy so they tend to flop over, especially after it rains. If you do not want to buy special peony rings you can use wooden or light metal stakes and twine to make your own support.

The only other regular maintenance peonies require is removal of the foliage and a thorough fall cleanup. During the growing season, for a neater appearance and to prevent the spread of disease, remove any diseased leaves.

Kame-no-kegoromo peonies with pink flowers and yellow anthers in sunlight

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Attar of Roses peony with pink flowers and bud in leaves closeup

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Madame Reignoux peony with light pink flowers and bud on stem closeup

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Peonies bushes with pink, red, and white flowers in sunlight

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Peonies bushes with fuschia flowers and white flowers in the background

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Light

For the best bloom, garden peonies need full sun with at least six hours of sunlight. The only exception is warmer climates where you can plant them in partial shade to protect them from the midday heat.

Soil

Peonies can grow in many different soils as long as the soil is fertile and well-drained. Avoid wet locations where water pools. If the soil is sandy or high in clay, add organic matter but not manure, as it may cause the plant disease botrytis. When adding amendments to the soil, make sure to mix them in deeply.

Water

Generally Chinese peonies do not require watering. Their water needs are the highest in the spring and fall so if there are dry conditions during those crucial months, keep the soil evenly moist by watering them slowly and deeply as needed. 

Temperature and Humidity

Peonies are perennials for cool climates. They need winter chill to induce plant dormancy.

They don’t do well in strong heat and humidity, especially during the bloom. In warmer climates, one workaround is to select varieties that bloom earlier, before the onset of the summer heat.

Fertilizer

Chinese peonies generally don’t need fertilizer unless the soil is poor in nutrients. Apply a fertilizer that is low in nitrogen, such as bulb fertilizer, after the bloom and again in the late summer, around the dripline of the plants.

Varieties of Chinese Peonies

Of the many different cultivars of Chinese peonies, these Paeonia lactiflora cultivars are some of the most popular: 

  • Paeonia lactiflora ‘Sarah Bernardt’, a fragrant late-season bloomer with rose-pink double flowers.
  • Paeonia lactiflora ‘Karl Rosenfield’, a crimson-colored mid-season bloomer with double flowers.
  • Paeonia lactiflora ‘Shirley Temple’, a fragrant, early bloomer with double, light-rose flowers that gradually fade to ivory.
  • Paeonia lactiflora ‘Bowl of Beauty’, a fragrant, early-season bloomer with single pink flowers and frilly off-white to yellow centers.
  • Paeonia lactiflora ‘Kansas’, a fragrant, early to mid-season bloomer with bright pink-red double flowers.
  • Paeonia lactiflora ‘Festiva Maxima’, a highly fragrant, early-season bloomer with double white flowers.
Sarah Bernhardt peony with rose-pink double flowers and bud on stem closeup

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Growing Chinese Peonies in Containers

Because they are so tall and top-heavy, Chinese peonies tend to topple over when planted in containers. If you want to grow them this way, choose dwarf hybrids, also called patio peonies.

Common Pests/Diseases

The most common diseases affecting Chinese peonies are botrytis blight and other fungal diseases, especially in wet, cool spring weather. If you notice diseased, blackened or wilted leaves or stems, remove them promptly to prevent the spread of the disease. In the fall, cut the herbaceous stems down to a few inches and dispose of them in the garbage.

Mildew, which is also a fungus, appears as a white coating on leaves and stems, mostly in hot, humid summer weather. It is merely unsightly and does not harm the plants. Here, too, a thorough fall cleanup helps preventing the plants from getting reinfected in the following year.