A short overview
Botanical herbaceous peony species grow in Europe, Asia and North America. Tree peony species are found in Asia. Peonies thrive in a temperate climate. They need a serious spell of cold weather and frost to induce flowering the following spring.
In Europe, the "officinalis" peonies are found from the Mediterranean Sea to the Alps. In Asia, a vast selection of species is present between the Himalayas and the Chinese coast. In North America, botanical species can be found along the Pacific Coast.
The peony's broad botanical background has provided growers and breeders with a vast range of possibilities throughout the ages. Tree and herbaceous peonies have been cultivated in China and Japan for more than 2000 years. The first lactiflora peonies were imported to Europe as early as 1548*, followed by the tree peonies around 1789*.
Hybridising was at its peak in France, Belgium, The Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, around the 19th and mid 20th century. Many herbaceous peonies, developed in previous centuries, are grown for cut flower production. The criterion for their hybridisation was the production of impressive and beautiful flowers, suited for the cut flower market of past and present times. This might explain why some varieties seem more at home in a well-tended flower patch than a garden border.
Hybridisers in North America took over around 1950 searching for more sturdy and natural growing crosses. A wealth of knowledge and an abundance of hybrids were provided by Prof. A. Saunders. At the same time in Japan the foundation was laid for a new kind of hybrid. Toichi Itoh crossed a tree with an herbaceous peony, thus creating the peony of the 21st century. The Itoh or intersectional peony. Unfortunately Itoh-sensei never saw his first cross bloom.
Past and present hybridisers have left their mark on the evolution of the peony. We have included their names in our on-line catalogue. Searches are made possible. We hope you will enjoy your journey through the history of peony breeding.
*From: "Garden Paeonies by James Kelway 1954"