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Herbaceous Peonies vs. Itoh Peonies

Even if you don’t know a lot about plants, you probably recognize the peony. Sean, our horticulture guru here at The Gardener’s Center, says peonies “are like roses” in that people are very familiar with them.

But are you familiar with the two different types of peonies? 

Herbaceous Peonies

To begin, the word “herbaceous” refers to the type of plant that dies back and disappears completely in the winter months. Think hostas, daylilies, summer phlox… They are all herbaceous, meaning after they go through a couple freezes, they disappear for the season.

Herbaceous peonies have been in cultivation for over a thousand years, which is incredible when you’re talking about plants. Especially an ornamental plant!

Herbaceous peonies were being cultivated mostly in China during the Tang dynasty during the 10th century. And once the Europeans discovered these plants into the 19th century, they became very popular, mostly in France. Hundreds of cultivars were introduced in France during that time; there are actually over 6,500 varieties of cultivars and species of peonies.

We all know these plants are popular for their cut flowers. Fun Fact… Many of the cut stems—about 40%—come from Holland or the Netherlands, but their busy time is April, May and June, and then you don’t see them after that.

But within the past ten years, believe it or not, Alaska has emerged as an up-and-coming resource for cut peonies! With their looong summer days and cooler temperatures, peony farms are successful there.


What to Know About Herbaceous Peonies for Your Garden

First, these plants are easy to grow. Second, you’ll be able to enjoy them for a long time because they can live in your garden for a hundred years!

Many perennials, even if they’re being cared for by a master gardener, will start to decline after ten or fifteen years and finally will go away on their own, and that is perfectly normal. Not the herbaceous peony.

  • These plants want to be in a sunny place, and the more, the better.
  • They also like a good, loose soil that has lots of compost, one that’s well amended.
  • And they like consistent moisture, without giving them soggy or wet feet.
  • So once you get your herbaceous peony situated properly, it can live “way longer than we will,” says Sean.

Finally, you’ll see herbaceous peony blooms in whites, reds and pink shades, but because their blooms are so big (especially the double blooms), they have a tendency to flop and “become a hot mess” after a rain shower.

It may be hard to rectify that after it’s happened, so Sean recommends using a “Grow-Through” support ring with a grid or an open peony ring to prevent your peonies from flopping. The trick is to use them when your peonies are just emerging. Not only will the support keep your peonies upright and looking tidy, you won’t see the ring as your plant grows up through it.

Itoh Peonies

This is simply one of Sean’s favorite plants. Not just favorite peonies, FAVORITE PLANTS.

A bit of background… In addition to herbaceous peonies, there are tree peonies, and they behave completely differently. They are more like a hydrangea or a forsythia, losing their leaves during the wintertime, but not disappearing.

Back to the Itoh peonies. In Japan in the 1940s, a horticulturist named Tochi Itoh crossed herbaceous peonies with tree peonies, and ta-dah, developed the Itoh peonies. They are the best of both worlds: They have the foliage of the tree peony and they have the flowers of the herbaceous peony.

But what’s most exciting is that they introduce other flower colors. You’ll find yellows and apricot/peach color, as well as some orange and rusty colors, giving you many more color choices.

The other thing they’ve inherited from the tree peonies is their sturdy stems. You won’t need to use a support ring on them. They just don’t flop!

There’s always room for another peony!

Don’t you need one of these beautiful plants? If not you, a peony is a great gift for anyone, and especially for Mom for Mother’s Day. If she’s a gardener, even better. And if she already has peonies in her garden, hello, there are 6,500 kinds… Get her another one!

Besides, Sean says that any mom who gardens is going to love to have more. (An Itoh peony will knock her socks off!)

If you want more details or have questions about peonies or anything else, come talk to us at The Gardener’s Center. We have the plants, the supplies and the knowledge to help you have a beautiful and satisfying garden.
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