15 Common Problems With Flowering Peonies
Do your peonies look a little more rugged than normal? Peonies are some of the most popular flowers grown each season. However, they aren't without some common issues that can impact their growth. In this article, certified master gardener Laura Elsner looks at the most common problems you'll likely encounter with peonies, and how to fix them!
With so many different types of peonies for gardeners to choose from, it’s no wonder they are one of the most popular plants that end up in flowerbeds across the world. Growing peonies takes time and patience. They can live and bloom for 100 years if they are properly maintained. Luckily, for the most part, peonies are easy to grow and have very few issues that arise during their growth cycle.
But things can go wrong, so it’s important to identify any potential issues that may impact the health of your peonies early on. By identifying what’s going wrong early on, you can stop small issues from progressing into much bigger problems down the line.
If your peonies are looking a little rugged, there are some common issues that could be plaguing them this season. Let’s dive into the most frequently seen problems that could be impacting your peonies, and how to get them back on the right track!
Leggy Stems and Few Flowers
Long dangly stems and few blossoms that are skinny and weak is a telltale sign of not enough sun. Peonies thrive in full sun conditions. Which means 6+ hours of sunlight per day. This is where your peonies will be big and bushy and covered in blossoms. If you notice your peonies seem stringy or ‘leggy’ and only a few blooms that stretch outwards, your peony needs more sun.
This can be achieved in two ways. You can dig up and move them to an area with more sun. I don’t always recommend moving peonies because they will take a couple seasons to bloom again.
But, if they aren’t getting big and bushy with lots of blossoms, there is no sense leaving them where they are. Your other option is to trim away whatever is blocking the sun. This will be the case if you planted in full sun but over the years your garden has filled in. Large trees and shrubs are now shading the area.
You can prune back trees and bushes to bring the sun back to your garden. This is not always the best solution, large trees are hard to prune. Remember peonies are a 100 year investment, so consider how trees will grow over the years when planting.
Crispy Leaves & Scorched Petals
Okay, now that I’ve said full sun is best for peonies, I am already going to backtrack, a little bit. While peonies do require full sun, they do appreciate some protection from the hot afternoon sun. Especially in the warmer zones, or high elevations where the sun is stronger.
If your peonies get too much high intensity sun, like the summer afternoon rays, you may notice crispy leaves and scorched petals on your peonies.
When first planting your peonies, keep this in mind. Plant them in an eastern exposure where they will be shaded in the afternoon, or under a tree where they will get some afternoon protection (but not too much shade)
If you already have a peony planted in too sunny conditions, try putting up some shade sails to protect it. Or plant some other plants, like a shrub or a tree, nearby that will eventually offer some shade. Move them only as a last resort.
Floppy Yellow Stems and Foliage
If your peony has leaves that are yellowing prematurely in the season and the stems are weak and floppy, your plantmay be overwatered. This can eventually lead to fungal disease like mildew and stem and root rot.
Peonies do not tolerate being in soggy waterlogged soil. Make sure your peony is in an area of the garden where the water drains away from it. When choosing a location for you peony make sure the soil is loose and able to absorb and drain water freely. A boggy spot in your garden is not a suitable location for you peony.
You will have to dig up and move your peony if it is in a wet location. Dig it up and then prune off any of the rotten and mushy roots. Replant into nice fluffy soil that drains.
Lots of Foliage, But No Blooms
Peonies are an easy plant to grow, once they are established and growing. In the beginning they can be divas. First, they need to establish themselves, they may not bloom for a season or two after they are planted.
If more than a few seasons have passed, and you are still only seeing foliage, but no blooms, it’s time to take a closer look. Peonies need to be planted exactly at their crown, no deeper. Some plants, like tomatoes or coleus, you can plant up the stem and they will make more roots. Peonies do not do that. They will not bloom if there is soil mounded around the crown of the plant.
When first planting, you will notice the reddish pink ‘eyes’ on just below the crown. It is critical that you only bury these eyes a max of 1 ½ deep with soil. Any more and the plant will not bloom. Also take that into consider when adding compost to your beds, do not bury the crown.
If you have planted too deeply, you will have to dig it up and replant it. This will probably mean a couple more seasons of no blooms, but then it should start to bloom after that.
Blooms Only Last a Few Days
Peony flowers are one of the shorter lived blooms in our gardens. They usually bloom for a 2 week period. If you find your blooms fade to seed heads in only a few days, it might be because of the location.
My neighbor had a row of peonies along their driveway. When I first moved in I was so excited to see them bloom. But then as the season rolled around, poof, their flowers were gone in a day. Their driveway was a windy location. One good wind and the petals were gone.
Peonies are delicate flowers, harsh winds and rains will decimate them. When planting, try and find a spot that has some protection. In a garden within a fenced backyard, near a house, or by a tree that offers some protection. If you’ve planted peonies in a pot, relocate it to a different location. If they are out in the open or you are using them as a hedge, this isn’t ideal.
You have two options for this one. Either move your peony to a new location, which means it will not bloom for a season or two. Or you can add protection. A large shrub on one side, a fence, a hedge, a trellis, or an arbor can all add protection from wind.
Eaten Flower Petals
It is peony season, and your flowers are in full show. But the petals have small holes in them making the flower have a tattered appearance. Unfortunately, this could be hoplia beetles. These beetles are about ¼ of an inch in length and they feed on the blossoms in the spring.
Unfortunately, there is no real miracle spray here. The best way to manage these pests is to be out hand picking them.
Pick them and throw them into a bucket of soapy water. It will only need to be done when the peonies are in bloom, it won’t be an all summer job.
Flowers Toppled Over
Okay, I did say that peonies were low maintenance, well there is one thing most peonies require, staking. A lot of the varieties have such big blossoms that they topple over. There is nothing worse than seeing your peonies about to open and then seeing them hanging down on the dirt.
You have two options here. One is to get a peony cage. The two ringed cages like the ones that are often on tomatoes work great. Get the cage onto your plant in early spring when it is just starting to emerge from the soil. This way the peony will grow up and through the ring.
If you missed that window, get bamboo or wooden stakes and stake them into the soil around the plant and then create a cage out of twine. I usually do a double row of twine to really secure the plant.
The other option is to opt for varieties that do not require staking. Itoh and tree peonies do not require staking. Some varieties with smaller blossoms such as ‘Chocolate Soldier’ also do not require staking.
Purple Blotches on leaves
If your plant has irregular purplish brown blotches on the leaves and reddish brown streaks in the stems. This could be caused by a fungal disease known as peony leaf blotch. Unfortunately peonies are susceptible to fungal diseases.
Prevention is key when it comes to healthy peonies. Make sure to cut down and dispose of your peonies in the fall. I’m not a huge advocate for fall clean up, but peonies should be cut down to prevent fungal infections.
Next, be sure to plant your peonies 2-3 feet apart to allow for adequate airflow between them. Also, avoid overhead watering. Try using a drip hose snaked through your garden so you are only watering the soil line.
If your plant is exhibiting signs of peony leaf blotch, there is not much you can do. You can trim off any of the unsightly foliage. Then be sure to cut down and dispose (not compost) all affected peonies in the fall. In the spring spray the new shoots with a fungicide.
White Powder on Leaves
Powdery mildew is another fungus that can affect your peonies. You will notice a powdery film on their foliage that can be wiped off.
As with purple leaf blotch, powdery mildew is easier to prevent than to treat. Start by cutting down and disposing of your peony plants in the fall. Make sure your peonies have adequate airflow, plant them 2-3 feet apart.
Finally, if possible, avoid overhead watering. Use drip hoses that only water the soil line. If you are overhead watering it is best to do this in the early morning so the sun can quickly dry the leaves and they don’t sit wet all night. That is a breeding ground for mildew.
Of course, we can’t control the weather, and wet rainy springs are sometimes inevitable. If your peony ends up with powdery mildew there are lots of fungicides on the market made specifically to treat powdery mildew.
Spray as directed. Then make sure to cut and dispose of your peony leaf litter to avoid recontaminating next year’s plants.
Irregular Brown Spots and Rotting Stems
Irregular brown spots and rotting stems can be a sign of botrytis blight on your peonies. The leaves will have irregular brown spots and the stems will be weak and rotten. The may be covered in a grayish mold.
Botrytis blight is often found in peonies when the season has been particularly rainy and damp. In order to prevent it, make sure your soil is light and able to drain away excess water. Do not plant peonies in wet areas.
Make sure you are leaving space between your plants to allow for adequate airflow. Also, if possible, avoid overhead watering. I use a drip hose snaked through the garden to water directly at the soil line. If you are overhead watering, water in the morning so the leaves can dry off in the sun and not remain wet overnight.
You can spray the new shoots of peonies with a fungicide to prevent botrytis blight. I would only do this if your peonies have had it in the past. This is a reason I cut down peonies in the fall to avoid any fungus overwintering in the dead foliage.
Rotten and Moldy Stems
Another fungus that can potentially affect your peonies is stem rot. You will notice the new stems shooting out will wilt and rot away. They may be covered in white fuzzy mold.
This is yet another reason why I implore you to cut down your peony in the fall and dispose of it (it can be composted if not infected with a fungus).
Also, leave space between your peonies and other plants to allow for adequate airflow through the base of your plant. Try and avoid overhead watering, use a drip hose that waters only the soil line instead. Do not plant peonies in wet or boggy areas of the garden.
If you notice these symptoms, cut down and dispose of your peony in the fall. The following spring spray the new shoots with a fungicide. Work on improving airflow and drainage. This might mean moving your peony to another location.
This symptom could be caused by a variety of things. If your peonies leaves are curling, start with examining the basics. Their leaves will curl under a variety of unideal conditions. Too much sun and not enough water could cause leaf curl.
Try and protect your peony from hot afternoon rays. Water deeply during hot and dry spells. A sudden drop in temperature can also trigger a penny’s leaves to curl. Once the temperature warms up this should correct itself.
Disease and insects could also trigger leaf curl. Examine for possible signs of insects or fungus (check out some of the previous points to narrow down fungus and insects). Fungicides or insecticidal soap can be applied if necessary.
Poorly Shaped Flowers
If you are a house plant enthusiast I am sure you know of this terrible bug. Thrips. Well they can get peony buds and eat them and destroy the flowers.
These tiny pests infest the areas in and around the buds which will kill off some of the buds and will leave others malformed. You can test for thrips by using blue sticky tape. The adult thrips will stick on to the strips.
To eradicate thrips, spray down the leaves and buds with an insecticidal soap, or neem oil. This will have to be reapplied as thrips have a very fast life cycle and you will need multiple applications to get ahead of it.
Buds Turned Black
Peonies require a cold dormant period in order to grow and bloom. But sometimes cold weather can work against your peonies. A blast of late spring cold weather can damage the flower buds. They will turn black and not open.
The bad news is, no peony flowers that season. The good news is they will be fine next season. Luckily, this doesn’t happen often for most gardeners.
One way to avoid this is to choose late blooming varieties such as ‘Dinner Plate’. These varieties won’t produce buds until slightly later in the season.
Ants (Not Actually a Problem)
Finally, I will end this list on a positive note. Ants on your peony are a non problem. They are even beneficial for your peony. While it is a myth that peonies require ants in order to bloom, ants and peonies have a symbiotic relationship.
This means they both help each other. Peonies secrete a sticky sap that ants love, and in return, the ants protect the peony buds from other sucking insects, like thrips. So don’t mind the ants. But also, check for them when you’re picking a bouquet.
The key to perfect peonies is time and patience. Yes, they require a little bit of effort, but when they reward you with their beautiful blossoms, time stands still in the garden. If you are having problems, hopefully, this list of 15 common issues will help you identify and fix your peony problem.