Yellow Peonies: From the Wild and Into the Garden


Many years ago we had the pleasure to speak to a long-time member of the American Peony Society. This gentleman had been interested in and growing peonies since his boyhood days in in the 1930s. He recalled that a grower then told him that a if anyone could produce a yellow peony, that would surely be a "million dollar peony." At the time, though yellow peonies did already exist, they were exceedingly rare. Much more common (though no less beautiful) were the classic shades of white, pink and red. While yellow peonies remain somewhat uncommon today, the yellow blossomed tree, herbaceous and intersectional peonies are all available for the collector's garden. 


One of the approximately nine wild species of tree peonies is Paeonia lutea. A dramatic plant with large chartreuse foliage and small yellow flowers, it is native to a small area of southwestern Tibet.

P. lutea has a tall and spreading habit, and will reach 6' at maturity. Small 2" lemon yellow flowers bloom late in the tree peony season. Large, beautifully dissected foliage stays a shade of chartreuse green all season.

In our USDA zone 6a. Paeonia lutea experiences much winter die back. In order to have this peony successfully flower in USDA zone 6 and colder, plant in a sheltered location and mulch in the winter. It is better suited as a garden plant for USDA zones 7 and 8, where it does not experience any winter die-back. 

The first larger blossomed yellow tree peonies were produced by the famed nurseryman Victor Lemoine of Lorraine, France. His nursery in Nancy was most famous for its lilacs, but also produced many fine cultivars of tree and herbaceous peonies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Lemoine was the first horticulturalist to cross the wild species P. lutea with the cultivated peony P. suffruticosa. The resulting 'lutea hybrids' come in a variety of golden hues, though many of these first generation crosses exhibit the characteristic of weak flower stems. The result is that the large blossoms hang downwards, as exemplified by 'Alice Harding' shown above. Many of Lemoine's cultivars were lost due to damage sustained at the nursery during World War I.

Among peony connoisseurs, the name Saunders is synonymous with excellence. A.P. Saunders was a professor of chemistry at Hamilton College whose passion was peony hybridizing. He was active and extremely successful in this field from the 1920s to the 1950s. Since his first hybrid peonies were introduced almost a century ago, Saunders peonies have been noted for their graceful habits and flowers, striking colors and and overall excellence. Saunders earned such glowing accolades for his work in large measure due to his stringent criteria for selecting new cultivars for registration and propagation. He selected only about 1% of all of the seedlings which were the result of his crosses, thus the 200 or so Saunders varieties represent the cream of a lifetime crop of over 200,000 plants. 
Though much of his work was devoted to herbaceous peonies, Saunders also created a series of lutea hybrid tree peonies. The most famous of these is 'High Noon' (shown above). This vigorous cultivar is a prolific bloomer year after year. In its habit, it is an improvement over Lemoine's first lutea hybrids in that it's flowers are well displayed on the shrub. 

The work of Saunders and Lemoine has been carried on by passionate breeders in the United Sates, Europe and Asia. The newest lutea hybrids are five or six generations removed from the original crosses of P. lutea with P. suffruticosa. Blossoms range in color from peach to maroon, and have excellent growth habits. We are currently evaluating some of these exciting new tree peonies and hope to offer them for sale in the near future. 
Yellow is the color associated in classical Chinese culture with imperial power and the emperor. Many traditional varieties of Chinese tree peonies are classified as 'yellow' but are in fact only the lightest shade a cream. There is one Chinese peony which is a true golden yellow, 'Golden Wheel' an ancient herbaceous peony cultivar which was first recorded in the Tang dynasty (circa AD 800) when one was given to the Chinese emperor. There is no further mention of the plant until approximately 200 years ago when it was rediscovered by Zhao De-King, a breeder of herbaceous and tree peonies during the Qing Dynasty. 
 
As shown above, this cultivar also has distinctive chartreuse growth in the early spring. 
The best known group of yellow peonies are the 'Itoh' or intersectional hybrids between tree and herbaceous peonies. These combine the leaf and flower form of tree peonies with a herbaceous habit. The Japanese nurseryman Toichi Itoh was the first to succeed in hybridizing tree peonies with herbaceous peonies in the late 1940s. From this new hybrid group, a vibrant palette of colors emerged with yellow as the most prominent color.

A few American hybridizers have been exceptionally successful in making these difficult crosses. First among these is Roger Anderson of Ft. Atkinson, WI (shown above with his wife Sandra and their prized hybrid peony 'Bartzella'). This cultivar, with its sturdy stems and large semi-double lemon yellow blossoms was so highly coveted when first introduced in the 1990s, that a small division sold for nearly $1,000! 

Today this peony is both more widely available and more affordable, leading the gardener to conclude that we are indeed living in the golden age of peonies.
See our current selections of yellow tree, herbaceous and intersectional peonies.