Fernleaf Peony Care: Learn How To Grow Fernleaf Peonies
By: Mary H. Dyer, Credentialed Garden Writer
Fernleaf peony plants (Paeonia tenuifolia) arevigorous, reliable plants with unique, fine-textured, fern-like foliage. Showydeep red or burgundy flowers appear a little earlier than most other peonies,generally in late spring and early summer.
Although fernleaf peony plants tend to cost a bit more,they’re worth the extra expense because they grow slowly and live so long.
How to Grow Fernleaf Peonies
Growing fernleaf peonies is easy in USDA plant hardinesszones 3-8. Peonies need cold winters and won’t bloom well without a period ofchill.
Fernleaf peony plants prefer at least six hours of sun perday.
The soil should be fertile and well drained. If your soil issandy or clay, mix in a generous amount of compost before planting. You canalso add a handful of bonemeal.
If you’re planting more than one peony plant, allow 3 to 4feet (1 m.) between each plant. Overcrowding can promote disease.
Fernleaf Peony Care
Water fernleaf peony plants every week, or more often whenweather is hot and dry, or if you’re growing fernleaf peonies in container.
Dig a handful of low nitrogen fertilizer into the soilaround the plant when new growth is about 2 to 3 inches (5-7.6 cm.) tall inspring. Look for a product with an N-P-Kratio such as 5-10-10. Water well to prevent the fertilizer from burningthe roots. Avoid high nitrogen fertilizers, which can cause weak stems andsparse blooming.
Add a layer of mulch, about 2 to 4 inches (5-10 cm.), inspring to conserve soil moisture, then be sure to remove the mulch in fall. Addfresh mulch consisting of evergreen boughs or loose straw before winter.
You may need to stake fernleaf peony plants, as the bigblooms may cause the stems to lean towards the ground.
Remove wilted flowers as they fade. Cut the stems down tothe first strong leaf so the bare stems don’t stick up above the plant. Cutfernleaf peony plants nearly to the ground after the foliage dies down in fall.
Don’t dig and divide fernleaf peonies. The plants don’tappreciate being disturbed, and they will grow in the same place for manyyears.
Fernleaf peonies are rarely bothered by insets. Never sprayants crawling over the peonies. They are actually beneficial for the plant.
Fernleaf peony plants are disease resistant, but they can beafflicted with phytophthorablight or botrytisblight, especially in wet conditions or poorly drained soil. To preventinfection, cut plants to the ground in early fall. Spray the shrubs withfungicide as soon as tips emerge in spring, then repeat every two weeks untilmidsummer.
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Peony Plant Profile
By some estimates, there are as many as 33 different species within the genus Paeonia, known collectively as peonies. Most are herbaceous perennials, though a few are woody shrubs. Peonies have tuberous roots that are a combination of thick storage roots and thin roots designed to absorb water and nutrients. Careful handling of these roots is critical to planting or transplanting peonies, as well as when you are dividing plants to propagate them.
Peonies are categorized in many different ways, such as by flower type or by growth habit. In addition to the familiar garden-variety herbaceous peonies with all their flower variations, there are special types such as fern-leaf peonies (Paeonia tenuifolia), a particularly sensitive and prized species, and tree peonies, which are woody, upright forms. These types have some special planting needs.
|Plant Type||Perennial flower|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun|
|Soil Type||Well-drained adaptable|
|Soil pH||6.5 to 7.0|
|Bloom Time||Late spring to late summer|
|Flower Color||Wide range|
|Hardiness Zones||3 to 9 (depending on variety)|
|Native Area||Asia, Europe and Western North America|
Fern Leaf Peony, Double Fernleaf Peony, hybrid species cross 'Plena'
|Genus:||Paeonia (pay-OHN-ee-uh) (Info)|
|Species:||tenuifolia (ten-yoo-ih-FOH-lee-uh) (Info)|
|Additional cultivar information:||(aka Double Fernleaf, Rubra Plena, Tenuifolia Rubra Flore Plena)|
USDA Zone 3a: to -39.9 °C (-40 °F)
USDA Zone 3b: to -37.2 °C (-35 °F)
USDA Zone 4a: to -34.4 °C (-30 °F)
USDA Zone 4b: to -31.6 °C (-25 °F)
USDA Zone 5a: to -28.8 °C (-20 °F)
USDA Zone 5b: to -26.1 °C (-15 °F)
USDA Zone 6b: to -20.5 °C (-5 °F)
USDA Zone 7a: to -17.7 °C (0 °F)
USDA Zone 7b: to -14.9 °C (5 °F)
USDA Zone 8a: to -12.2 °C (10 °F)
USDA Zone 8b: to -9.4 °C (15 °F)
All parts of plant are poisonous if ingested
Soil pH requirements:
By dividing rhizomes, tubers, corms or bulbs (including offsets)
N/A: plant does not set seed, flowers are sterile, or plants will not come true from seed
Flowers are good for cutting
This plant is attractive to bees, butterflies and/or birds
Average Water Needs Water regularly do not overwater
Where to Grow:
Grow outdoors year-round in hardiness zone
This plant is said to grow outdoors in the following regions:
Center Valley, Pennsylvania
On Jun 29, 2014, quasymoto from Bloomfield, IA (Zone 5b) wrote:
I have had this Peony for a number of years and it has yet to bloom. But the First year It was planted too deep. Then I moved it early in the second season. Didn't like that spot so I moved it yet again to a bank under a young Oak tree. It stayed there for several years never blooming, this Spring I decided to place it out in my Front garden that get's late morning to mid afternoon sun. I will see how it does next spring. I have regular Peony's, a tree Peony, and these types of peony's, love them all.
On Sep 7, 2011, Norlin from Humboldt, SD wrote:
Planted 2 Fern Leaf this spring. The weather was awful with strong winds but they have caught and the foliage is dying back now. Will mulch good this fall and look forward to having success in the spring. Have had in the same zone in WI with great success. Difficult to find and very happy to add to the garden.
On Aug 6, 2011, collanne from Sioux Falls, SD wrote:
I was given a fern leaf peony for mother's day last year, it died. I was given another one for this mother's day. We have had torrential rains - way more then we usually receive in a short period of time (and all summer!). Needless to say, it also died. There was a guarantee on this one and they replaced it with two more. I really want these two to survive! I love peonies and have about 20 very old, standard peonies that have survived about anything. What hints/tips/helps can you give me to ensure that these two don't die? I live in South Dakota and know they should grow here.
On Apr 30, 2011, Mechthild from Stewartstown, PA wrote:
Years ago I saw a plant decsribed here locally in Pennsylvania as the Moravian Peony. I have asked far and wide of nurseries, plant shows, and gardeners to no avail. Yesterday I found the plant marked "Moravian Peony" at a local, Amish plant stand. Upon further research I determined that the Moravian Peony to be Rubra Flora Plena (Paeonia tenuifolia). I purchased one and will follow up on my success with it. It is a beautiful plant.
On Jun 5, 2009, sharizma from saskatoon,
I live in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The Fern Peony was in the flower bed when we bought our house and it's thriving despite the sometimes -35 weather in winter. Anything human or floral has to be made of good stuff to survive that!!
On May 5, 2006, billyporter from Nichols, IA (Zone 5a) wrote:
I was given a small plant in 1993. It has done well and is beautiful. I have dug and divided four times and given some away. I now have 8 small plants set in permanent beds and look forward to letting them gain some size.
On Oct 8, 2005, fancyvan from Calgary, AB (Zone 3a) wrote:
I have grown a fern leaf peony for about 10 years - it was dug from an elderly relatives garden - dont know how old it really is. Flowers beautifully every spring. I keep it supported on a grow ring with a grid on it as it does tend to flop if there is a lot of rain when it is in bloom.
On Jul 15, 2005, Joan from Belfield, ND (Zone 4a) wrote:
Although it was a bit tempermental for the first two years I had it, the third year it took off and looked wonderful. It also bloomed for a very long time.
On May 23, 2004, mickemt from Depew, NY wrote:
This is an excellent plant, although a bit temeprmental about being disturbed. This specimen has been in my family for years, and has begun to thrive in the bed it has been transplanted to.
A very unusual looking plant, many people have remarked on it.
On May 4, 2004, bunnynjr from Keota, IA wrote:
The fern leaf peony is easily divided and actually does much better when the root/tubers are disturbed. I have moved and divided my original plant many times with great success. The one requirement of note is very well draining soil. Vermiculite, peat, and perelite are what I have used.
On Apr 15, 2004, mommydi from Gooding, ID (Zone 5a) wrote:
I found this plant abandoned five years ago and took it home with me. The only attention it has recieved from me since then is whenever I water my other flowers. It is on my east side of the house (in the front) and is ready to bloom now! I love it because it gives me blooms early in the season when I itching to get out and plant my flowers (but have to wait for most flowers due to our zone!). I do have daffodils, some tulips, and hyacinths. but this flower really makes me feel like the season has started!
On Feb 19, 2004, Terry from Murfreesboro, TN (Zone 7a) wrote:
Distinguished from Paeonia lactifolia, the fernleaf peony is more compact, and has finely divided foliage, making it a terrific garden asset even when not in bloom.
Fernleaf peony – cultivation and care
Fernleaf peonies desire a sunny, warm place in the garden. Even heat does not bother the plants.
Unlike its relative peonies, which love clayey soils, Paeonia tenuifolia needs a light, permeable and rather dry soil. It should nevertheless be rich in nutrients. It is best to excavate the planting area generously and improve the excavation with sand and/or chippings and compost or organic fertilizer so that it is deep, loose and yet humus. Coarse gravel is less suitable for the fleshy roots.
Planting fernleaf peony
When planting fernleaf peony, the same applies as for other perennial peonies: the rootstock must not be more than 3 centimeters deep under the surface of the soil. If the flower fails sparsely or completely, it could be because the clusters are too deep. The best planting time for peonies, especially rootstocks, is autumn. Container goods can theoretically be used all year round as long as it is not too hot and dry or the soil is not frozen. In the first winter a covering of spruce brushwood is advisable, after that it is no longer necessary and the plants are completely hardy. Due to their slow growth, you can plant them a little denser, but not more than two, at most three per square meter (10 sq ft.).
Short-term drought cannot damage the plant. The situation is different with waterlogging. This favors the infestation of tubular fungi. These pathogens cause the root rot feared by gardeners. In advanced stages, this results inevitably in the death of the affected plants.
As with almost all perennials, the root ball of the narrow-leaved peony should not dry out completely. On hot days it is useful to check the moisture content of the substrate.
- water in the morning and late afternoon
- use lime-free water
- regularly supply young and flowering plants with water
Watering during midday, when the sun burns directly on the leaves and shoots, stresses the plant. There is a high risk that much of the valuable water evaporates too quickly. Bark mulch is a good material to bind the moisture in the soil. It fulfils various tasks and, among other things, ensures that the evaporation rate remains low.
The fernleaf peony is frugal. This is also reflected in its nutrient consumption. If the beds are mulched in spring and compost or horn shavings are applied, the peony has nothing against a good portion of fertilizer. At the latest every two years, nutrients must be added to the substrate, otherwise the growth of the plant will stagnate. If you want to use products from the trade, you should buy a conventional slow release fertilizer. This is used shortly before flowering.
The above-ground shoots wilt shortly after flowering. In late autumn, the withered shoots are cut to about 10 centimeters (4 in) above the ground. This prevents fungal infestation in the following year.
Further helpful tips to promote the growth of the peony:
- remove withered flowers immediately
- cut frozen shoots in spring
- the stem of the peony must not be squeezed
In order not to promote diseases unnecessarily, the incision is made on a dry, sunny day. Preferably in the early morning.
What many hobby gardeners do not know: The fernleaf peony makes a distinctive vase decoration. The flowering shoots are cut and the lower leaves on the stems should be removed immediately.
- shorten the stem every 2 days
- change the water regularly
- Vase should be placed in a bright place without drafts
The fernleaf peony hardly need any care if they are in the right place. Their shoots are usually stable, they tolerate dryness and heat. In spring, when they are ready to sprout, they are grateful for a dose of compost and horn shavings, which are added gently. Take care not to over-fertilise them with nitrogen, as the shoots will then become soft and bend over or even rot. You can cut off the early drying stems if you find them visually disturbing.
Apart from patience, a lot of tact and sensitivity is needed to ensure that the propagation works. The shrubby plant can be propagated in three ways: by grafting, sowing and by root division.
In grafting, a shoot is grafted onto the roots of another shrub peony using a special cutting technique. This method is not easy for beginners, but it has one decisive advantage over the cultivation by seeds: these plants develop their flowers after only 2 or 3 years.
Propagation by sowing
The fine leafy fernleaf peony should be sown outdoors. It is almost impossible to stimulate the plant to germinate in a container. Another point: It may take 16 – 20 months until the first shoots appear. The seeds have to go through different cold and warm periods. These requirements can be met better outdoors than on the windowsill.
The following tips can be used to prepare for growing seeds:
- Clear the bed of weeds, roots and stones in late summer
- sowing the seeds
- press lightly
- Cover only minimally with substrate
- carefully water the floor
The sowing area should remain weed-free. This is a challenge because not every plant is immediately recognized as an undesirable plant. The longer the roots of the plants become, the more likely they are to displace the seeds and prevent germination. Fernleaf peonies, which are propagated by seeds, only flower after about 6 years. Patience is therefore required in many aspects of this propagation method.
Propagation by root division
Older fernleaf peonies can be propagated by root division. This method is demanding, considering the impressive length of the tap roots. The plant is dug up in spring or late summer.
- divide the rootstock with a sharp spade or an axe into equally large pieces
- plant the peony parts in the garden as usual
- water vigorously and keep sufficiently moist for approx. 14 days
Further steps are not necessary. As with the previous propagation methods, the split fernleaf peonies need a few years before they reliably show their lush flowering.
Diseases and pests
The fernleaf peony is relatively resistant. Cell sap sucking insects avoid the plant. There is a disease, but peonies can be affected by it: The grey mold. These fungal spores are favored by a humid and warm spring. With shrub peonies the complete shoots wither, with perennial peonies only isolated buds and stems.
Paeonia tenuifolia belongs to the shrubs, in case of an infestation the affected plant piece is removed down to the healthy wood. With special fungicides from the specialized trade one can fight the fungus pathogen effectively.
Paeonia tenuifolia is robust, which is especially evident in the cold season. Due to its long taproots, ice and snow cannot harm the fernleaf peony. The plant survives temperatures down to -20 °C / -5 °F without damage. The young shoots react more sensitively to late spring frost.
If you have seen the weather forecast in time, you can cover the perennial with a fleece. The bushy plant has no objections to the application of bark mulch in autumn. The material warms and releases nutrients to the soil. Fertilization and watering is not done in winter.
Potted plants run the risk of the soil in the container freezing completely. This can inevitably lead to the death of the fine-leaved peony. As a preventive measure, the pot is wrapped with bubble wrap or sacking. Further precautions are not necessary.
Once they're planted, it's important to focus water on the base of the peony, not its leaves. Too much water on its leaves can cause leaf diseases, while consistent watering of the plant's base will help it thrive. Weekly watering (until flowers have wilted) is a good guideline.
You won't want to step on your freshly planted peonies after they have gone dormant for the winter. (Doing so can injure their shoots, Poole says.) So, Poole suggests you plant a marker or stake with your peonies, so that you'll know where they are.
How to Grow and Care for Peonies
Last Updated: January 13, 2020 References Approved
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Peonies are an elegant flower known for their large, beautiful blooms and long lifespan. Many peony plants can live more than 50 years! Unfortunately, they usually take a few years to get settled into your garden. To grow and care for peonies, get peony roots (called tubers) and plant them in the fall. Plant them in your garden, leaving 3–4 feet (0.91–1.22 m) between your flowers and other plants. Cover the roots with soil and mulch to encourage growth. Water the soil once every other week during the summer until the plant grows. After 1-2 years, your peonies will blossom into massive, beautiful flowers.