Tree peonies – how do you prune them?

Peony plants that die back to the ground each winter and then send up new shoots each spring are known as herbaceous peonies–the term herbaceous means that they don’t have a woody stem. I think it’s safe to say they’re the most common type of peony grown in North American gardens–they’ve been around a long time, they’re very long-lived, and they produce beautiful blooms.

 

Tree peonies share many characteristics with herbaceous peonies, except they have a woody stem. They’re kind of like mini trees. In the winter the foliage dies off but the woody stems remain. And then, in the spring, buds and leaves sprout from that woody stem. Not long after that, super-sized peony blooms emerge:

 

The blooms on mine, which are fairly common, are each close to 10″ (24 cm) across, and usually double (i.e. they have lots of petals).

Tree peonies (and peonies in general) range in colour from white to pink to red and even burgundy red. Less common, but quite striking, are the cream to yellow blooms.

 

Most tree peony blooms are open-faced, displaying their stigma and pollen covered anthers (if that reminds you of high school biology class, there’s a reason–these are the reproductive parts of the flower):

 

Tree peonies are stunning plants when they’re in bloom but even once the blooms are finished the leaves remain attractive.

 

If you don’t cut off the old blooms, seed heads will form. I leave these on because I think they look quite interesting. They remain in place throughout the winter, and then in spring, they’re still there, looking the worse for wear, right alongside the newly emerging buds and foliage. It’s at this point that some sort of pruning is required, but what? Do you prune them like roses?

 

The answer is no. Tree peonies are very slow growing; if you cut them back hard (i.e. severely), they will not send forth a burst of new growth like a rose bush would.

 

For tree peonies the only thing you want to prune, normally, is anything that’s dead. On the photo below, you can see that the “dead parts” are the stems that supported last year’s flowers (you can see what’s left of a seed head on the left portion of the image). You know they’re dead because there is no new growth coming out of them.  I’ve put red circles on the places where this tree peony should be trimmed:

 

It’s simply a matter of taking secateurs and snipping off the dead bits of wood at those points.

If any of the larger branches have died off during the winter–which sometimes happens–those should be removed at the same time.

 

And that’s all the pruning you need to do! Certainly, if you have an old, large tree peony that you want to make a bit smaller, you could cut back some of the branches (to just above a growth node, like I showed you on roses), but be careful how much you cut as it will take a long time to grow back to that size.

 

The reward, for tidying up those few dead bits, is a clear view of this year’s gorgeous new blooms. Enjoy!

 

 

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14 Comments

  1. Cynthia Hillier on June 14, 2018 at 4:54 pm

    What’s the best location to plant a tree peony ?

    • Jennifer on June 15, 2018 at 8:20 am

      Thanks for your question Cynthia. They seem to enjoy full sun (6+ hours a day) in rich garden soil (i.e. lots of compost) with good drainage.

  2. NL on February 24, 2019 at 3:03 am

    Hi, what’s the name of this tree peony?

    • Jennifer on February 25, 2019 at 8:48 pm

      That’s a really good question…

  3. Tom Charkiewicz on April 29, 2019 at 10:48 am

    I have shoots shooting up from the ground in addition to the plant growing. Should I trim the shoots or wait and see what happens?

    • Jennifer on April 30, 2019 at 6:44 am

      Hi Tom, it sounds like your tree peony was grafted onto herbaceous peony rootstock and that’s what’s coming up. You will want to get rid of the herbaceous peony or it will take over. I found a good article that explains what happened and tells you how to go about getting rid of the herbaceous peony growth https://www.treepeony.com/pages/herbaceous-understock-sprouted-on-tree-peonies-part-i Hope this helps!

  4. Jane Farady on May 5, 2019 at 8:58 am

    Several of our tree Peonies have up to 30 blooms. My concern is that there is so much foliage that the blooms will be overshadowed and stalks misshapen. Is it okay to trim the some of the lower leaves?

  5. Jennifer on May 5, 2019 at 9:36 am

    30 blooms on a tree peony–wow, that’s going to look spectacular, Jane! I would be reluctant to remove foliage on a tree peony as they need leaves in order to be able to conduct photosynthesis and store up energy for next year. Normally, the blooms emerge above the foliage (it’s part of how the plant presents them to pollinators). You could remove a few leaves once the blooms start to open (so you can see if they will actually be overshadowed) if you really feel they’re obstructing the flowers but I’d be very judicious about it. Also note that tree peony blooms have fairly short stalks (unlike herbaceous or itoh peonies) so I wouldn’t worry about them being misshapen.

  6. Paula. on May 25, 2019 at 10:43 am

    My tree peony is huge now-about 14 feet tall and probably similar width with loads of bright yellow flowers. It has outgrown its space in my front garden and I would like to know if I can cut some of the branches back a substantial amount or will that be detrimental? I have been given mixed advice from local NT gardeners and am confused. Will it kill the peony if I cut back hard? If I can do this please can you advise the best time of year? I was told after flowering which is now? It seems to be what they do in Tatton Park, my local NT. Thanks.

  7. Jennifer on May 25, 2019 at 7:44 pm

    Wow, I can’t say I’ve ever seen one that big in our area–I’m jealous! The general rule with most shrubs is that you can cut them back by 1/3 every year and they’ll be ok. If you have a shrub that needs to be cut back by more than that it’s safer to do it by 1/3 every year for several years than whack it back all at once, so that’s what I would recommend. I’ve never done this with a tree peony but I can’t see any reason they’d be wildly different from other shrubs. And yes, the general rule is also to cut shrubs back just after they’ve flowered to ensure that you still get flowers next year. If your local National Trust is cutting back now then I would certainly follow their lead.

  8. Mary Moulden on June 5, 2020 at 11:47 am

    Hello..I just finished cutting the blooms off my Peony tree, well some of them. I cut off 23 so far and there are another 15 still there. THe flowers re yellow to gold to deep maroon and 6 to 8 inches round.It is a splendid sight. OF course the isa problem. WHen it was given to me I knew nothing. So it is at my back door on the west side of my house and it is huge and now about 5 years old.
    So…can it be moved? Can it be pruned down? It only gets sun from 2 o,clock til 4 o,clock. I’m really at sea…
    WHat advise do you have for me?

    • Jennifer on June 7, 2020 at 12:56 pm

      If it’s blooming well (and it sounds like it is), and it’s growing (you said it’s huge)–it sounds like it’s happy right where it is. Tree peonies can take more shade than herbaceous peonies and it sounds like it’s doing fine.

  9. Liz on June 8, 2020 at 10:37 am

    I have two young peony trees, this is their second year of flowering. I don’t know what to do regarding pruning. They are leggy, in fact just one stem at present with with large heavy leaves at the top and flower seed buds after flowering. I have to support them in all areas to stop them from falling over.

    Should I prune it so far back in the autumn to encourage more growth further down the leggy stem?

    • Jennifer on June 13, 2020 at 2:30 pm

      If the main stems are that weak it sounds like the plant may not be getting enough sun. I would consider moving it. And ensuring that its well feed (i.e. add compost to the soil every year). If you are going to prune it, do it now, right after it’s finished flowering.

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