A peony is a plant in the Paeonia genus. Peonies are native to China and Japan, where they have long been prized for their showy displays of colorful flowers, and they are cultivated throughout the Northern Hemisphere in gardens of all shapes, styles, and sizes. Many garden stores carry peonies, and several companies actually specialize in raising and hybridizing these plants, creating a stunning array of cultivars to satisfy a wide range of tastes. You can also see peonies depicted in numerous works of Asian art, where they are associated with happiness, fortune, long life, and honor.
The peony is in the buttercup family, but these plants don't have many resemblances to the humble buttercup. They produce large, showy flowers which are typically quite colorful, with leaves which are deeply lobed, sometimes so much so that they look extremely lacy. Peonies can be white, yellow, pink, red, and yellow, and they tend to appear in the late spring and early summer.
There are two distinct types of peonies. Herbaceous peonies are perennials which grow in the form of small shrubs, typically dying back in the winter. Tree peonies develop into much taller bushes with well defined, woody branches, and they are deciduous, losing their leaves in the winter. The tree peony is more rare, and it can sometimes be difficult to find outside of Asia.
Growing peonies is relatively easy. The plants do well in USDA zones two through eight, preferring sunny, very well drained soil, if possible. It is best to plant peonies in the fall, allowing them to establish themselves briefly before going dormant, ensuring that the plants will be strong and healthy for spring blooming, and light fertilization is recommended. Herbaceous peonies can be trimmed to remove unsightly dead foliage in the winter, while tree peonies can be shaped with trimming after they go dormant.
Many people cultivate peonies for the purpose of having cut flowers, as the blooms can look quite beautiful in vases. Be warned that the petals tend to drop off quickly, so cut peonies right before you intend to use them in floral arrangements to be sure that the flowers remain fresh, crisp, and beautiful. If you need to transplant a peony for any reason, wait for the plant to go dormant, and avoid planting a peony where one has been planted before, to reduce the risk of passing on peony diseases.