Autumn Leaves on Peonies

Think of autumn and think of cool, misty mornings and tree leaves turning red. It is sometimes forgotten that the leaves of some perennials also change as they start the journey into winter. Among the most colourful perennials with autumn leaves are peonies.


Left to right: P. 'Festiva Maxima', P. 'Krinkled White', P. 'Emma Klehm' 

Peonies put on a lot of root growth during early winter, which I suspect is why they to die back so much earlier than other perennials. The leaves start to colour up during late summer, usually around late August, going from green to soft green and yellow, then red and finally shrivelling to brown.

The widest range of autumn colours can be found on herbaceous peonies (the ones that die right back in autumn). After they have changed colour the next stage can look rather messy as the foliage curls up and withers to a dull brown. This is not bad news for insects because this is when they become a useful over wintering place for good insects such as ladybirds. So if you can leave the foliage on a plant do so for as long as possible.

This dishevelled look does not occur in all peonies. Intersectional peonies have beautifully cut, leathery leaves that turn clean, autumnal hues, then gracefully and cleanly drop off the main woody stems. The same is true of woody peonies (tree peonies), but I have to confess I have not studied the autumn colours to such an extent as I have herbaceous and intersectional peonies.

One year I photographed all the container-grown herbaceous peonies that had lovely autumn foliage to document the amazing range of colours. Some had deep red leaves, some pink-red or burnt orange ones, others were dusky purple, while a few varieties had not started to turn from green. Here is a short list of some of the best of the plants we had in pots. 

Red leaves

Festiva Maxima (double white flowers)

Kansas (double red flowers)

Miss America (semi-double white flowers)

Top Brass (double blush pink flowers)

Orange leaves

Krinkled White (single white flowers)

Deep reds to purples leaves

Adolphe Rousseau (double red flowers)

Doreen (Japanese type pink flowers)

Emma Khelm (double pink flowers)

Julia Rose (semi-double pink flowers)

I have to stress that this is only a snapshot of the peonies we had in pots last year. They had been well-watered and we had already had (unusually) one frosty night. This year, because of the extremely dry summer, our peonies are not nearly as glorious. The field grown peonies started to look decidedly autumnal during early August and who can blame them with so little water! Just goes to show, enjoy things when you can.