Question: I have been looking for scented peonies for five years now. Every year, I go to the nursery, I smell the flowers, but they’re totally odorless. On the Internet, I see lots mail-order sources with descriptions of peonies, but they never seem to mention the flower’s scent. I can’t imagine ordering their peonies without knowing what they will smell like!
Last year, in the nursery, I came across new Canadian varieties. They were beautiful and had strong stems, but their smell was downright unpleasant!
Do you know of any fragrant varieties I could try? And where to find them? Scent is my main objective. True enough, I would prefer they have a strong stem that doesn’t require staking, but I’d rather have a floppy flower that smells good than an upright one with no fragrance.
I find it unfortunate that hybridizers today pay so little attention to floral perfumes.
Answer: Floral fragrance, whether that of peonies, roses or other plants, is often difficult to classify. It depends not only on the genetics of the plant, but also on the temperature, the time in the day when you sniff them (most peonies are more fragrant early in the morning than at the middle or end of the day), wind or lack of wind and many other factors. And to add to the confusion, each person has their own preferences: some may find a variety deliciously fragrant while others can’t stand its perfume and yet another can barely detect any odor at all!
Moreover, the choice of peonies sold in many garden centers is generally very disappointing in ever so many ways. Typically, they sell the same old weak-stemmed peonies they’ve sold for generations, ones that are easy to multiply quickly and are produced on a massive scale in China for exportation around the world, but whose behavior in the garden is more than disappointing. And few have much of a perfume.
Truly Fragrant Peonies
In general, the most highly fragrant peonies are white or pink varieties. Reds are usually not scented. Also, varieties with double flowers are more likely to have an intense perfume than those with single flowers. But there are, of course, many exceptions to both rules.
And you are right to point out that hybridizers have often overlooked floral fragrance. They tend to work on beautifully shaped flowers in striking colors rather than with an intense and delicious scent. As a result, many hybrids of peonies, roses, sweet peas and other modern flowers have little to no perfume, while the wild plants these complex hybrids were derived from were often famous for their scent.
Fragrant Peonies You Might Enjoy
Here are some varieties renowned for their fragrance … and I only included those with strong stems as well (as a laidback gardener, I have no sympathy for floppy peonies!). But only you can decide if their scent is attractive or unpleasant.
Paeonia lactiflora ‘Angel Cheeks’: large double pink flowers, sometimes with some red streaks. 80 to 90 cm × 90 cm.
P. Itoh ‘Bartzella’: the most popular Itoh peony. Surprisingly fragrant for an intersectional hybrid. Huge yellow semi-double to double flowers with touches of red in the center. 90–120cm x 90–120 cm.
P. lactiflora ‘Bowl of Beauty’: Japanese peony with fuchsia pink petals and a center made up of narrow creamy white petaloids. Flowering: June. 90 cm × 90 cm.
P. lactiflora ‘Catharina Fontjin’: Double pink flowers becoming lighter pink. Excellent cut flower. 100 cm × 90 cm.
P. lactiflora ‘Cora Stubbs’: Japanese peony with pink outer petals and a domed center white. Intense fragrance. 80 to 85 cm × 90 cm.
P. lactiflora ‘Duchess of Nemours’: One of the few 19th century peonies—that is, ones you can find in just about every garden center—that has strong stems. Abundance of double creamy-white flowers. 60–90 cm x 90 cm.
P. lactiflora‘Eden’s Perfume’: Large, very double flower (you could easily say triple!), light pink with darker pink hues and a halo of creamy-white petals around the middle. Rose scented. 90 cm × 90 cm.
P. Itoh ‘Garden Treasure’: Pale yellow semi-double flowers with red marks near the center. Long blooming. Lemony fragrance. Many secondary blooms, thus ensuring prolonged flowering. 90 cm × 90 cm.
P. lactiflora ‘Hermione’: Huge double pink flower with a fringed margin. 60–90cm.
P. lactiflora ‘Honey Gold’: creamy-white Japanese peony with creamy yellow petaloids in the center. Prolonged blooming because of the numerous secondary buds. 90 cm × 90 cm.
P. lactiflora ‘Madame de Verneville’: White flowers spotted red. They’re not the largest flowers, but they do have a strong rose scent. 60 to 90 cm × 90 cm.
P. lactiflora ‘Moon River’: large pinkish-white double, cup-shaped flower. Compact plant. 65 cm × 60 cm.
P. lactiflora ‘Petite Elegance’: semi-double flower a bit on the small size, but their ever-changing color is quite unique: dark pink eventually becoming creamy white with red marks. 55 cm × 90 cm.
P. lactiflora ‘Petite Porcelaine’: beautiful white semi-double flower with wavy petals. 55 cm × 90 cm.
P. lactiflora ‘Philippe Rivoire’: beautiful red flower, small, but very double, with an excellent fragrance. 60 to 90 cm × 90 cm.
P. lactiflora ‘Philomele’: anemone type with a row of lavender-pink petals around a central ball of pale yellow petaloids. 60–90cm x 90 cm.
P. lactiflora ‘Spiffy’: Japanese peony reddish pink on the outside and dark pink with cream in the center. 70–75 cm x 90 cm.
P. lactiflora ‘Sea Shell’: superb light pink variety. Single flowers with a very yellow center. Long blooming. 100 cm × 90 cm.
There are many more where these came from, so I suggest going to a peony specialist in the late spring and early summer when the peonies are in bloom and smelling the peonies at their prime before making a selection. Write down the names of your favorites, but only order them for fall delivery: the best time of the year to plant peonies.
Mail Order Catalogs
I haven’t had the same experience as you did: I find that peony catalogs on the Internet usually do describe the fragrance of the varieties they sell … if it’s worth mentioning, that is. If the variety is scentless, they don’t highlight that fact. And most also tell you which peonies stand tall and proud without staking.
Good plant hunting!