Peonies & The Itoh Hybrids

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Peonies are known for their large, gorgeous and often fragrant blooms.  Of the numerous varieties, most are herbaceous perennial plants, some are trees, and some new Itoh hybrids.

The herbaceous Peony has been cultivated in home gardens for hundreds of years. Given the beauty of the flower it’s no wonder why they have long been a perennial favorite. Peonies are extremely long-lived perennial plants that can last for up to 50 years. Herbaceous peonies (Paeonia lactiflora) are those that die to the ground in winter and then reappear with the onset of warmer weather, typically in March. Their blooms described as: single, double, semi-double or full double; they make a wonderful cut flower and many are fragrant.

Depending on variety, most herbaceous perennial peonies grow 1 ½ – 3 ft tall and wide.  They grow best in full sun but will tolerate light shade.  They bloom mid to late spring with blooms lasting six to eight weeks.  The erect stems of peonies make them perfect and elegant additions to cut bouquets.  They range in color from pure white, to pink, to yellow, to deep red. Some varieties are a combination of colors such as the ‘Cora Stubbs’ which has gorgeous Raspberry-pink petals surrounding creamy white staminodes and ‘Festiva Maxima’, a deliciously fragrant, double white with flecks of dark pink in the center.  Bloom types vary between single to stunning doubles.  Some of our other favorites include: ‘Sarah Bernhart’, a double pink old fashioned favorite; ‘Duchesse de Nemours’, a gorgeous double white; ‘Bunker Hill’, a double pinkish-purple; ‘Dinnerplate’ named for it’s enormous blooms which are rose-scented, soft pink and come later than most peony varieties; ‘Shirley Temple’ a charming favorite with pale pink blooms that fade to white; and dark double reds ‘Inspector Lavergne’ and ‘Renato’.

Herbaceous Peony Care Tips

  • Grow peonies in deep, fertile, humus-rich, pH neutral moist soil that drains well (good drainage is vital to avoid root rot and fungal diseases) Incorporate about 1 cup of bone meal into the soil. If the soil is heavy or very sandy, enrich it with compost.
  • Provide stakes or plant rings to support the flower stems and prevent breaking or bending during strong rain or wind.
  • Remove spent flowers to prevent seed development which uses up needed food reserves and effects the next years’ blooming.
  • In the fall, after the foliage dies back, cut the stems back to three inches, remove and destroy them. They require winter cold in order to flower so consider planting in a northern exposure and do not add extra mulch for the winter season.

Dividing Peony Clumps

Peonies should only be transplanted or divided when it becomes absolutely necessary.  An established and productive plant may not need dividing for ten to fifteen years or longer.  Carefully dig around and under the plant to avoid cutting off roots and remove the clump from the hole.  Remove all of the old foliage, and hose the dirt from the root cluster.  Carefully cut or pull apart the roots into sections, making sure there are at least 3 or 4 growth eyes in each new section.  Trim away any soft or damaged spots with a sharp, clean knife.  Dust the cut surfaces with a fungicide to discourage disease infection and rot.  Replant into a newly prepared area of the garden.  It is not a good idea to plant them in the same place where they were previously growing.

Itoh Peonies

Itoh peonies are a relatively new introduction to the peony world. The original hybrid between the herbaceous peony and the tree peony was created by Mr. Toichi Itoh of Japan in 1948. Louis Smirnow, an American horticulturist, introduced four Itoh hybrids to the United States in the late 1960s.  Later hybrids are properly referred to as intersectionals, but all hybrids are usually called Itohs, after their originator. The early Itohs often sold for a thousand dollars each or more, limiting them to well-to-do collectors. Now they have become more generally available at a price in the reach of many gardeners.

Itoh peonies take the best features of each parent. They are vigorous, compact and easily cared for like herbaceous peonies, and have the sturdy structure, beautiful foliage and incredible flowers of the tree peony. They require no staking and bloom twice as long as an herbaceous peony. When mature, they produce tons of flowers – as many as 50 blooms in a one season.  Varieties we love include ‘Keiko’, ‘Morning Lilac’, and ‘Takara’.  ‘Keiko’ featuring large, semi-double to double flowers that begin a dark lavender pink that slowly fade, as the flower matures, to a soft pink, revealing a cluster of yellow stamens in its center. The flower is lightly fragrant.  ‘Morning Lilac’  has gorgeous, large, single to semi-double fuchsia-pink blooms with gold stamens.  ‘Takara’ is simply stunning.  Large flowers can be up to six inches across! They display a unique and exquisite ever-changing blend of colors. At opening, blooms appear mostly pink, but are actually light yellow heavily flushed with deep lavender pink. As the flower matures, the pink and yellow fade to pale white with a large dark burgundy flare in the center.

Itoh peonies are quite easy to look after. Plant them in well drained fertile soil. Mean it when you plant them. They do not like to be moved. They will tolerate full sun but some shade in the afternoon or dappled shade will help the flowers last longer. Keep them watered during periods of drought. They grow to three feet tall and wide and only improve with age.  Peonies are long lived and can grace a garden for many years. Most sources say the Itohs do not divide easily, so splitting them is probably not a good idea.

We are pleased to offer these rare and incredibly beautiful plants to our customers. We hope they give you pleasure for years to come.