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Extension 4-H Youth Building
Ames, Iowa 50011-3630
(515) 294-9915


Linda Naeve, Reiman Gardens, (515) 294-8946,
Jean McGuire, Continuing Education and Communication Services, (515) 294-7033,

For the week of May 10, 2004

Fernleaf Peony is a Precious Gem in the Garden

By Linda Naeve
Extension Coordinator
Reiman Gardens

With many possessions, cars, jewelry, furniture, and even plants, there is often an expensive model and an inexpensive, more generic alternative. For example, diamonds and cubic zirconium look quite similar, but there is a big difference in quality and price. Factors, such as rarity or uniqueness, the difficulty of even obtaining an item, and the amount of labor required to produce an item can determine the value. Often, it is just the brand name that adds extra value. This week's Reiman's Pick, fernleaf peony, is like a rare gem or vintage car that holds its value for years.

Fernleaf peony, Peonia tenuifolia, is more expensive than most peony species or varieties because it is more difficult to propagate and often not sold in garden centers.

Fernleaf peonies are quite different from the familiar garden peonies. As its common name implies, their foliage is delicate and feathery while other peonies have large, solid leaves. It is also much shorter, growing only 15 to 20 inches tall. Fernleaf peonies bloom about a week or so earlier in the garden in only one color - dark red. The flowers are single except for 'Plena' ('Flore Plena', 'Rubra Plena') which has double flowers.

Since they are somewhat rare, they may seem like exotic plants, however, fernleaf peonies do not require a lot of additional attention and are quite easy to grow. They are hardy in USDA hardiness zones 3 to 8 and, like all peonies, require a well-drained location that receives at least six hours of sun each day.

Fernleaf peonies can be planted in early summer or fall. When planting peonies, it is very important to have the top of the roots only 1.5 to 2 inches beneath the soil surface because they may not bloom when planted too deep. Plant the crown division with the pink buds or "eyes" pointing up.

Remove spent blooms on peony plants and keep the soil moderately moist throughout the summer. Do not cut back peony foliage until after the first fall frost.
Peonies are considered a symbol of remembrance. Fernleaf peonies bloom aptly around Mother's Day at the same time as many spring-flowering perennials, trees and shrubs. Use fernleaf peonies as specimen plants or in the front of a garden border. After the flowers fade, the light, airy foliage adds textural contrast to the garden.

Although peonies are propagated by division, they do not like to be divided. Unless crowded by other plants or encroached by shade, peonies are perfectly happy when left alone.

You can see a fernleaf peony among the unique peony collection in the Helen Latch Jones Rose Garden at Reiman Gardens. The collection includes 108 different peonies of various species and cultivars, many of which are over 50 years old.


Editors: A color photo, suitable for publication, is available at right. Click on the thumbnail photo to go to the fullsized photo. The picture's fullsize photo is 428K.

Caption: Fernleaf peonies are a valued treasure to many gardeners. These dainty plants, with feathery foliage, bloom early in May with dark red flowers. Plant them today and enjoy them for years to come.

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