Red Charm Peonies Live a Charmed Life in Your Landscaping

This True Red Paeonia a Must-Have for Lovers of Rich Colors

As this peony flower photo shows, some of these perennials are burgundy. David Beaulieu

Paeonia 'Red Charm' is how this flower is designated in terms of plant taxonomy. You will sometimes see this scientific name written out more fully as Paeonia lactiflora x Paeonia officinalis 'Red Charm.' That "x" indicates that the plant is a hybrid. P. lactiflora is what most North Americans think of when they hear "peony plants."

Plant Type

The plant is an herbaceous perennial. By comparison, so-called "tree peonies" are classified as sub-shrubs.

What Red Charm Peonies Look Like

The fragrant double flowers can be 6 inches or so wide, making these blossoms quite impressive. The flowers can be either a true red or, occasionally, display a generous admixture of pink. They bloom a bit earlier than P. lactiflora. For example, if the latter blooms for you in early June, your Red Charm peonies may flower a couple of weeks ahead of that, in May.

These clump-forming perennials grow from underground tubers, technically, although you may hear some gardeners referring to them as "bulbs." The foliage, which is pretty in its own right, can grow to a height of about 3 feet, with a similar spread.

Where Can These Flowers Be Grown?

Regions within growing zones 3 to 8 are the recommended areas for growing Red Charm peonies (some types of Paeonia are hardy to zone 2). The cold-hardiness of many peonies is a major boon to northern gardeners. These sturdy specimens do not simply tolerate the cold, they positively need it, because it is critical for them to undergo a period of dormancy.

Growing Conditions for Red Charm Peonies

Install them where they will receive full to partial sunlight. Err on the side of the former at the northern end of their range, and on the latter at the southern end. They require a well-drained loam, the fertility of which you should try to boost by working in humus.

Planting Tips

It is important not to plant your Red Charm peony too deep in the ground. If you are planting the tuber, one Master Gardener offers this advice: "In order to set their flower buds, peony roots should be planted relatively close to the soil surface; only about 2-3 inches deep." This source proceeds to explain why noting that " peonies like a good chill in the winter." That is, Paeonia is one perennial that has a chilling requirement, and if that requirement is not met, buds will not set -- and you will not get flowers.

The same source issues a further reminder: Accidental burying can occur when you are mulching your plants. Consequently, "Keep the mulch away from the base of your peony plants."

If you are planting a pot-grown peony in the ground, the plant should be installed such that the top of the soil in the container will rest at the level of the soil once you have put it in the ground. If you anticipate settling in the soil, it should even be a bit above that level. In other words, again, the idea is to resist any temptation to bury it deep.

Facts on Plant Care

One chore in peony care that usually occurs to anyone who has grown them is support. That is, because the flower heads are so large, they will become quite heavy with moisture after a rainstorm and try to flop over. While some form of staking might work for support, gardeners more generally place metal rings around the plants. Just ask for "peony rings" at your local garden center.

It is best to deadhead peonies after they have finished blooming. The reason? "If spent flowers are allowed to remain on the plant, fruits develop that divert some of the plant’s energy," says the Iowa State Extension (ISE). The same source states that you might wish to take it a step further with new plants, suggesting that you "remove any flower buds that form so the plant may maximize leaf and root growth in its first growing season." This means sacrificing immediate gratification in exchange for superior plant health in the near future -- a tough sell for the impatient.

To discourage plant diseases, most people trim peony vegetation down to ground level and dispose of it in autumn after the initial hard freeze.

About the Hybrid Background: Geographical Origins

As indicated above, this hybrid was created by crossing P. lactiflora with P. officinalis. Both are sometimes called the "common peony." But the former (or its hybrids, more specifically) may be the most widely grown peony plant in the North American landscape. It is one of the many plants from China that have become part of the fabric of our landscaping lives. Meanwhile, P. officinalis is native to southern Europe.

P. officinalis comes in both single and double-flowered forms. According to the Minnesota Peony Society, "The species has been used for developing the modern American Hybrid peony. In its single form, it is used to get vibrant red colored flowers and in the double form which passes on the trait for doubleness to its offspring." Thus it is hardly surprising that P. officinalis should be one of the parents of Red Charm peony.

Attraction, Ants, Toleration, Toxicity

There are four things you should know about plants in the Paeonia genus regarding how animals interact with them:

  1. They will attract butterflies to your landscaping
  2. Readers, upon spotting ants on the flowers, often ask if they need to implement any pest control measures to counteract them. The answer is no: ants do not eat peonies.
  3. They are relatively deer-resistant perennials (and not eaten by rabbits as often as many plants are)
  4. They are poisonous plants to humans, pets, and wildlife 

Landscaping Functions and Other Uses

Red Charm peonies have enough size and color to be treated as specimens in your late-spring landscaping. They are a classic choice for flower borders and foundation plantings alike. Paeonia is also a traditional cottage-garden plant.

Moreover, they make excellent cut flowers. Fill your vase with water and apply whatever preservative you may wish to use. Then snip off the lower 1/2 inch of the stem before placing it in the water. Some like to cut a bunch of them before a rainstorm to avoid having the blooms become waterlogged.

Longevity, Best Attribute, and An Overlooked Feature

According to ISE, peonies can live for 100 years. That is what we might call "living a charmed life" in the landscape, whether it is Red Charm peonies, specifically, or any other variety.

Some find the Red Charm peony's best attribute to be the color of its flower. It comes as advertised (at least most of the time), as a rich, true red peony. Add to this the fact that it bears large, double flowers, and you have the ingredients for a show-stopping floral display. Red flowers are, of course, born attention-grabbers.

As an overlooked feature, let's note that Paeonia is one of the plants that you can enjoy even when the blossom has not yet fully unfurled. At this early stage in the blooming cycle, the perennial presents tightly-wound balls of color that are attractive in their own right.