Normally the term “going to seed” has a negative connotation, meaning to decline, go downhill, age out, etc., but with peonies, I mean it in the nicest possible way.
I think peony seed pods are absolutely charming, giving the spring bloomers a whole other season of interest. At summer’s end, when they split open to reveal their shiny black seeds, wow! Very impressive!
To Prune or Not to Prune?
Of course, many gardeners never see the seeds come to fruition. They’ve been told they have to deadhead peony flowers (remove their faded flowers) or that will weaken the plant. So that’s what they do.
Well, don’t believe everything you read!
Admittedly, deadheading short-lived perennials can prolong their usefulness and I definitely would deadhead any newly planted one, even a peony, as it won’t yet have settled in and could use some extra energy to put out new roots. However, flowering and producing seed really doesn’t reduce the energy level of most long-lived plants (peonies, shrubs, trees, etc.) to any significant degree.
I almost never deadhead, as I like the natural look drying seed capsules add to my landscape. Plus, so many of them feed the birds I want to attract in fall and winter.
And Babies to Share
Well, back to peonies!
After the seed matures in early fall, it eventually falls to the ground where, some of it at least, germinates. True enough, peony seeds are slow to sprout (usually, there is no visible growth at all the first spring, although it will have germinated underground, with seed leaves only showing up the second year), but when they do bloom about 3 to 5 years later, they’ll give you a whole range of very attractive flowers. You can share these plants with friends and even give them cultivar names if you want. I see that as another advantage you only get if you don’t deadhead!
If There Are No Seed Pods
You’ll probably notice that some garden peonies, that is P. lactiflora hybrids, usually the very double ones, produce no seed pods. Bummer! That’s because their sexual organs have been turned into petaloides and are therefore essentially sterile. Still, some double and most semi-double and single peonies do produce seed pods, assuring this second season of interest.
The Winner Is…
I especially like the open seed pods of the woodland peony (Paeonia obovata), with shiny blue to blue-black fertile seeds and brilliant red infertile ones. In fact, that’s what stimulated me to write this blog: my woodland peonies are startlingly beautiful right now. In fact, the seeds are probably even more attractive than the flowers, which, although nice enough, are fairly small for peony blooms (about 3 inches/8 cm in diameter), simple and white or red-purple.
A bonus is that the woodland peony, as the name suggests, will bloom and set seed even in shady locations, although partial shade is best, extending the range of where you can plant peonies in your garden.
Another shade-tolerant peony, the Japanese peony (Paeonia japonica), is very similar and shares the same brightly colored seed pods.
Woodland peony is not the most common peony and probably won’t be available locally, but if you do an Internet search, you’ll readily find plants or seeds you can obtain by mail order. I grew mine from seed I ordered from Gardens North many years ago.
The Final Show
Did I mention that many peonies, besides stunning flowers and spectacular seed pods, also offer great fall color?
Peonies: not just for flowers anymore!