Until the last few years, there were two kinds of peonies available to peonyphiles: the tree peony and the herbaceous peony. Only the most hardcore peony-addict had heard of the Itoh peony (a.k.a. Intersectional peony, the names being interchangeable, “Intersectional” is the more formal name, and “Itoh” is the more common name, after the breeder who created them), and even if he had, only the wealthiest could have afforded one. Now all that has changed. Itoh peonies are becoming widely available and reasonably priced. And the effect of their availability is changing the American landscape.
The tree peony is a woody plant that can grow several feet tall and wide. While tender shoots die back in the winter, the woody stems remain. Tree peonies tend toward the pricier side, with a healthy three-year old plant selling for somewhere in the $35 to $100 range, depending on the rarity of the variety. Their blooms are large, up to ten inches across, and the colors and patterns can be exquisite. Tree peonies are not as commonly found in gardens as herbaceous peonies, most likely due to their price and slightly finickier nature.
Herbaceous peonies are the more common of the two types, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a garden anywhere in the US that didn’t boast at least one herbaceous peony. While tree peonies are only sold through specialty outlets, herbaceous peonies can be found in garden centers as well as the big box home improvement stores, and sometimes even grocery stores. Likely owing to their low cost ($8 to $15 for a three-year plant), they are everywhere.
But herbaceous peonies’ ubiquity by no means makes them vulgar. Herbaceous peony flowers are gorgeous in their own right (hence their popularity). The blossoms vary across a density spectrum from a delicate single to a double bursting with petals and dripping with ambrosiac scent. Their blooms are up to six inches wide and the colors and perfumes are impressive, though not as varied and eccentric as the tree peonies’.
Herbaceous peonies are all tender stem, which means they die back to the ground each winter, and most often require support to keep their heavy blooms from drooping to the ground.
Itoh peonies are a hybrid of the tree peony and the herbaceous peony. They take the best qualities of each parent: the handsome foliage, strong supportive stems, and blockbuster bloom sizes and colors from the tree peony; and the manageable plant size that dies back to the soil each winter, and the abundance of blooms from the herbaceous peony, and combine them to produce the best thing to happen to the garden since sliced bread. But perhaps the finest gift of the Itoh/Intersectional peony is the long-lasting bloom time. Herbaceous and tree peonies alike bloom for only a recious few days, but because Intersectional peonies produce more than one bloom per stem, the plants will flower for up to a month as one fantastic bloom opens after another.
The first cross of tree and herbaceous peonies was made in 1948 by Toichi Itoh. These first seedlings took several years to mature, and Itoh, who died shortly after his first successes, was never able to appreciate the fruit of his work. From the fifties to early oughts Intersectional peonies were a luxury of the wealthy gardener, selling for more than a thousands dollars per plant due to their scarcity. Only in the last few years have the Itoh peonies dropped to more “reasonable” prices, selling for an average of $100 per plant.
Is there a downside to this most amazing plant? Only one: like the tree peony, Itoh peonies don’t like to be moved. Alas, no splitting every few years and doubling your treasure. But don’t let that deter you. Itoh peonies are a gift from the gardening gods, and you’ll be thanking the heavens the first time one blooms for you and transforms your garden.