Although generally blooming in summer, some varieties of peony get a jump on their relatives, unfurling their colorful flowers in late spring and early summer. Primarily grown in colder regions of the United States, peony blossoms can be single, semi-double or double and grow as herbaceous shrubs or as a small tree. Hundreds of varieties of peonies are available to the home gardener, in white, red, pink and sometimes yellow. Some flowers have two colors or blends of colors. Many peonies are so large and heavy that their stems must be staked to hold it upright.
A very early bloomer, Chocolate Soldier is a Japanese bloom that appears on 3-foot-tall stems in spring. Like the anemone form of peony, the Japanese form has single flowers with a raised center mass of needle-like petals, usually in a contrasting color. Chocolate Soldier’s outer petals are such a deep burgundy they appear brown, and are cream to light burgundy in the center. Blooming in April and May, Buttercup is a Japanese bloom with white outer petals and buttery yellow, raised centers. Hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture planting zones 3 to 8, Buttercup grows about 3 feet tall and its showy blooms are pleasantly fragrant.
Growing 3 to 4 feet tall, Charlie’s White peony is a fragrant, double form, with double white outer petals that lie almost flat with a light golden center mass that resembles a carnation. Charlie’s White blooms early in mid-season. The flowers are good in cut arrangements.
An early summer bloomer, Karl Rosenfield has been strutting its stuff in the garden since 1908. The double flowers are chock full of dark, red petals and can be as large as 8 inches across. Foliage is dark green, forming an attractive frame for the flowers. The flowers are too large for the stalks to support and should be staked. Karl Rosenfield has a compact, mounding habit and grows 2 to 3 feet high. The plant can be used as a colorful hedge, and the blooms are good for cut-flower arrangements. Hardy in zones 3 to 5, Karl Rosenfield likes full sun to partial shade.
Tree peonies are almost identical to the shrub form, but with a thick central stem that does not die back to the ground in winter. The plants only grow about 2 to 5 feet tall. Paeonia suffruticosa Shima-Nishiki is one of the showiest early-blooming tree peonies available. Hardy in zones 4 to 8, the plant’s bright purple and white striped, semi-double flowers appear in late April and early May. Sweet-smelling, this little tree prefers partial shade and grows 3 to 4 feet tall. Another variety, Bartzella produces pastel yellow, semi-double flowers about 7 inches across. The plant grows 3 to 4 feet tall and has a strong, pleasant fragrance. The woody stems are strong enough to support the blooms without staking.