Harvesting Peony Seed Pods – What To Do With Peony Seed Pods
By: Darcy Larum, Landscape Designer
Whether herbaceous, Itoh or tree type, peony flowers always add a graceful, classic touch to flower. Hardy in zones 3-8, peonies are pretty tough perennial or woody landscape plants. Throughout history, peonies have been cultivated for variety of uses. Today, they are mostly grown for their exquisite, but sometimes short-lived blooms. After their blooms fade, flower stalks are usually cut back and plants are trimmed back to a smaller, round shape.
Peonies form interesting, clusters of wedge-like gray to brown seed pods, covered when young with a slight fuzz. As they mature, the seed pods turn dark brown and leathery, and as they ripen, the seed pods crack open, revealing dark purple to black shiny seeds. Continue reading for tips on collecting peony seeds.
Harvesting Peony Seed Pods
When grown from seed, peony plants will not form into true types. Forms of asexual propagation, such as cuttings or divisions, are the only way to produce true clones of peony cultivars. You may, however, produce unique bloom variations by propagating peonies from collected seed. Herbaceous perennials are slow to mature, taking 5-6 years to produce. Tree and Itoh peonies will mature much quicker when grown from seed.
So when should you remove peony seed pods? Peony seed pod harvest is performed in fall. They should be collected when the seed pods turn dark brown and leathery, and slightly crack open. To ensure that you don’t lose seed to birds, small mammals or forces of nature, tie nylon or small mesh bags around maturing seed pods before they split open. After collecting peony seeds, place them in a bowl of water to test their viability. Floaters are sterile and should be discarded. The viable seeds that sink should be rinsed with 10% bleach.
What to Do with Peony Seed Pods
Harvested peony seeds can be planted immediately, directly in the garden or indoors in seedling trays or pots. Peony seedlings require a cycle of warmth-cold-cold in order to produce their first true leaves.
In nature, seeds are dispersed on warm late summer to autumn days and quickly germinate. By winter, they form small, but suitable, roots. They lie dormant through winter then burst forth as spring warms the soil. To mimic this natural cycle, peony seed trays or pots can be placed in a drawer in the refrigerator for about three months, then placed in a warm, sunny location.
Another space-saving method of peony plant propagation is to place harvested peony seeds in a plastic sandwich bag with moist vermiculite and peat. Keep the bag closed and place it in a dark location with an average temperature of 70-75 F. (21-24 C.) until roots begin to form in the bag. Then place the bag in the refrigerator’s crisper until plants can be planted outdoors in the spring.
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How to Grow Peonies from Seed
Do you have difficulties growing peonies from seed? Despair no longer. help is on the way!
Growing peonies from seed is as easy as growing carrots, except it takes a little longer, (about 3-5 years). The results, however, are far more satisfying.
There are two approaches which we have found will have good success.
In late summer / early fall we collect seed pods from many different cultivars. These are strictly open pollinated seeds, so the variety is huge. Simply leave the pods in an open container to dry, and then remove the seeds. The pods will start to crack as the seeds ripen.
One has the option of planting the ripe seeds outdoors or indoors.
Use the seeds as soon as they are properly ripened. Prepare a nursery bed area somewhere in your garden area. Simply plant the peony seeds much as you would beans. Insert a marker label to delineate the area.
Most seeds should make a shoot in the coming spring/summer months.
The outdoor planting in early fall gives the seeds their obligatory warm moist treatment , the cold treatment of winter followed by the warming of spring. This sequence is the one mimicked by the indoor treatment.
About the beginning of October fill 4-6 inch pots with moist potting soil. Plant the seeds
2-21/2 cm. deep. If you wish you may spray the soil with a fungicide (such as ‘No-damp’) or treat the seeds with a bit of ‘bulb’ dust. Rotting is not usually a problem.
Place the pots in plastic food-storage bags. Tie with a twist tie and place in a warm place (
20 deg.C ) , leave for about 3 months. During this period the radicle and also a root system will develop. Soil can be carefully removed for periodic inspection without harming the little plants. Simply replace soil and place back in the bags.
When radicles and roots are sufficiently developed place the pots in a cold spot (just above freezing). That old fridge in the basement is marvelous for this purpose! Leave in the cold for 2/3/4/months. until SPRING!
Select a spot in the garden for a nursery bed. Carefully knock the soil and seedlings out of the pot (keep intact as much as possible) and plant at the same depth as in the pot. Insert a plant marker with the seedling information. Keep planting area moist (mulch). Throughout the summer you will see the first leaves appear. Some seedlings may not put forth leaves until next spring…be patient. Leave the little plants over winter (a further layer of mulch will help them overwinter without heaving) until Aug-Sept the following year. Transplant at this time to about 1 foot apart and at the same depth as the plant was growing. The little peony roots look a bit like carrots with coarse roots.
With a bit of luck (and good management) you can have a few blooms the following year (3rd year). You can expect to have plenty of blooms in year 4 and 5.
What a pleasure. what a thrill and what satisfaction to see the first peony flower from your own plants! Flowers no one in this whole wide world has seen before!
How to Grow Tree Peonies From a Seed
With their showy flowers and 6- to 10-foot growth habit, tree peonies (Paeonia suffruticosa) add a dramatic element to gardens in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 4 through 8, according to the Missouri Botanical Garden. Most varieties are hybrids, so tree peony propagation is done via cuttings or grafts to reproduce the plants' favorable ornamental characteristics.
However, growing peonies from seed is often possible and is, in fact, an important first step in breeding new varieties. Although tree peony seeds germinate reliably under moist conditions, the Texas A&M University Department of Horticulture indicates that they can take up to two years to sprout and another five to seven years to produce flowers, which may not come true to the parent plant.
Starting Peonies from Seed
Each year we collect seeds from our collection of Northwest Cultivar Group (rockii) tree peonies. You can order them from our website or send us $12 to receive 25 freshly harvested in late August. (Price includes postage.) We also have limited numbers of other peony seeds for sale. Please see our website for full information. Get your requests to us soon, we can only provide seeds a limited number of seeds each year.
Many of the seeds of Northwest Cultivar group p.rockii tree peony hybrids will yield plants which will produce these beautiful white flowers with maroon flares (blooming in about four years). This flower form and color is very similar to the wild species P. rockii.
Late August to early September will be the time to collect this year’s peony seeds. The vast majority of peonies yield viable seeds so if you left the pods on the plant all summer, try your hand at raising a crop of peonies from seed. Peonies raised from seed do not come true to the parent plant, though they may strongly resemble it. Almost all cultivated tree and herbaceous peonies are hybrids far removed from their wild species ancestors. The exception to this rule are seeds collected from a single species of peony which did not cross pollinate with other peonies.
Intersectional hybrid (Itoh) peonies are sterile and do not yield viable seeds. Unfortunately some garden favorites like the advanced herbaceous hybrids ‘Coral Charm’ and “Lois’ Choice’ are also infertile. Most of the European and American ‘lutea’ hybrid tree peonies like ‘Leda’ or ‘High Noon’ very rarely produce viable seeds. However, these are but a very small subsection of the peony world, the overwhelming majority of Chinese and Japanese tree and herbaceous peonies all yield large quantities of fertile seeds that will soon be ripe for the picking and planting.
Right now the beautiful star shaped pods are swelling and beginning to turn from a leathery green to brown in color. Seeds are ready to be harvested when the seedpod has turned a dark tallow-brown. We generally harvest our tree peony seeds here between the 3rd week of August and early September.
A good seed producing tree peony can yield over 50 seeds per pod.
The herbaceous seeds are ready a bit later, around the end of August.
An almost ripe herbaceous peony seed pod.
Methods for Seeding Tree and Herbaceous Peonies
When the seed pods have become a dark brown color and are just beginning to crack open, the seeds are ripe and ready to be harvested. Open up each segment of the seed pod carefully and remove the seeds. Damaged seeds will not germinate.
When fully ripe, peony seeds develop a double-dormancy which consists of a hard outer seed coat and dormant embryo. Germination occurs when air and water are able to penetrate the seed coat and reach the embryo.
Direct seeding outdoors
Freshly harvested seeds may germinate in the same season (in the late fall) and sprout the following spring as a small green shoot above the soil. Directly planting dry seeds with a hard and dry seed coat may need two growing seasons to naturally overcome the double-dormancy. These seeds shown below are harvested a little too soon. We have learned that it is better to wait to harvest brown and black seeds, otherwise the seeds will easily mold if not cured and somewhat dry.
Within each lustrous pearl is the germ of a peony which the world has never seen bloom, and has the potential to awe onlookers for centuries to come. Make the world a more beautiful place, plant some peony seeds this fall.
Left to mature seedpods will change to a dark brown and inside the seeds will change to black. The seedpods will also crack open. This is the time to plant the seeds.
Plant fresh (tan, brown or black) seeds directly in a sandy loam, garden soil mixed with a little extra sand, perlite or aged bark nuggets for drainage. The pH should be near 7.0, which often means adding some garden lime to sweeten the soil. Either plant directly in a seed bed or use pots with good drainage holes, 10-12” in diameter. We prefer clay pots or root control bags for seeding, though plastic pots will work.
Plant seeds about 1-2” apart, 2“ deep, and water well to settle in. Seed orientation does not seem critical the rootlet will find its way downward. At Cricket Hill Garden, we will sink the pot into the garden bed so it is protected in winter. Choose a site that is half sun, half shade. Cover over the seeds with 2-3 inches of mulch for protection from squirrels. If late summer and fall weather is hot and dry, water periodically to prevent drying. Normally, this is not needed after September in our climate. Later in fall, in late November, add 2-3 more inches of mulch for winter protection.
‘Root Control’ bags planted with peony seeds mulched for winter.
If conditions are right, the warm late summer weather will cause the seed to sprout and then cooler fall temperatures will promote root growth until the freezing weather. Nothing will show above soil level until next spring. Some seeds will not germinate until the second spring. Do not be impatient. We have given up on tree peony seed pots too soon, only to have them sprouting and growing in the compost pile! After two full years and 2 springs have past, and nothing shows, then likely you have a failure to germinate. This is often the case when you let the seeds dry out while germinating. So the first fall is very critical to have some moisture in the seed pot.
Tree peony seeds sprouting in the early spring. These germinated in the fall.
Remove mulch from the pot in spring about two weeks after the ground has thawed, leaving pot submerged in the garden. Observe any new growth by May. Young sprouts need to be watered and fed a mild liquid fertilizer, such as Neptune’s Harvest fish-seaweed fertilizer every other month during the growing season, April to September. Young sprouts will be about 2” tall.
1st year tree peony seedlings in June.
1st year herbacoeus peony seedlings.
Move young seedlings ONLY IN THE FALL. Allow them to grow undisturbed until September of their first year. After the first year space to about 6” apart in the garden.
In the second year tree peony seedling develop true leaves and grow to over 6” tall with foliage.
Young plants may be moved again in the fall season of their third year to a more permanent location. Allow at least 4 to 5‘ for each plant (3′ for herbaceous peonies) choosing a well drained site with 5-6 hours of sun for tree peonies. Tree peony seedlings will often start to bloom in their fourth year. While herbaceous will sometimes bloom in their third year. Keep in mind that peonies sometimes take several years of immature flowers before they show their mature form.
We have found this ‘direct’ seeding method very effective for seeds of Northwest Cultivar group Chinese (P.rockii) tree peonies such as ‘Snow Lotus‘ and herbaceous peonies. Seeds from other hybrid groups of tree peonies may germinate more easy with the benefit of the steps described below.
GERMINATING FRESH PEONY SEEDS INDOORS
Open freshly harvested seed pods as described above. Instead of opening seed pods immediately after harvesting, some growers allow the pods to cure in brown paper bag for a week in your garage or a shady, dry area. After a week, carefully open the seedpods.
Place the seeds in a zip-lock bag of slightly damp fine sand or vermiculite. Put the bag in a warm place (around 80 degrees). We use the top of our refrigerator. Root growth may commence in 4-12 weeks, after which point the sprouted seeds (identifiable by protruding white rootlet) can be planted outside as described above or put in a refrigerator for a period of cold stratification of 3 months at 40 degrees (the vegetable crisper of the refrigerator is a good spot).
Sprouted herbaceous peony seeds. These can either be planted outside if its early in the fall or put in the refrigerator for a period of cold stratification.
After this point the sprouted seeds can be planted in pots and either grown under lights indoors or gradually introduced to natural sunlight outdoors. A note of caution, the protruding rootlet is very fragile, so handle with care when planting. If seeds fail to germinate after the first cycle of hot/cold stratification, repeat the three months of warm treatment (around 80 degrees) followed by 3 months at 40 degrees.
Peony seeds which have a black or dark brown in color and have a hard seed coat. If these seeds are planted outside without any special treatment, it will likely take two growing seasons for the right combination of water, heat and bacteria to beak down the seed coat and allow water and air to reach the embryo. We recommend scarifying the seed with a file or medium sand paper. Two or three passes is all that is needed to gently rub the seed coat. See the photos below.
Without special treatment, dry, black seeds need to go through a period warmth and winter chill (either natural or simulated) before germinating.
In order to speed germination, the seeds can be scarified. This is a method of physically breaking down the outer seed-coat. We use a rather course file.
Hold the seed between your thumb and forefinger and give it 2-3 light passes with the file.
About 2-3 light passes with the file is all that is required, filing too deep will damage the embryo. If you file the seed down to the point of the white interior, you have gone too deep. Filing so that you remove the outer seen if usually enough. It is only necessary to file a small section of the seed. A diluted solution of sulfuric acid can be used to scarify large batches of seeds.
Filing just below the shiny exterior coat is all that is necessary to allow air and moisture to reach the dormant embryo initiate germination.
If planting indoors, follow the instructions for warm/cold stratification in the section for planting fresh seeds.
Some other considerations regarding peony seeds:
- Single, and semi-double flowers tend to yield more seeds than complex double forms.
- Place in cold and dry storage if you are unable to plant right away.
- Seeds collected from single specimen tree peonies (not in proximity to any other tree peonies) may not be viable.
Some of the beautiful tree and herbaceous peonies we have raised from seed. We call them our own Peony Heaven hybrids, but really we are just stealing the credit of the bees and the wind!
‘Zhou Dynasty Yellow’ herbaceous peony
‘Peony Heaven Celestial Peach’ herbaceous peony
New and as yet un-named Peony Heaven tree peony. Bloomed for the first time in 2011.
Another new Peony Heaven tree peony.
‘Post-Modern Phoenix White’ Peony Heaven tree peony
Remove peony seedpods to neaten plants
Listen to Walter Reeves Saturday mornings on News 95.5 FM and AM750 WSB. Visit walterreeves.com, follow him on Twitter @walterreeves or join his Facebook Fan Page at bit.ly/georgiagardener for more garden tips.
Q: I have successfully transplanted some fragrant peonies from Kentucky. After the bloom drops, the cluster of seedpods remains. Should those pods be pruned? — Rebecca Pell, Fayette County
A: Since no new flowers are expected after springtime, peony seedpods don't interfere with subsequent blooming. But they do detract from the plant's summer beauty so most folks remove them when noticed. There's no need to remove any foliage before it turns brown in November. At that point you can prune common peony back to the ground. Note: If you have a tree peony, do not prune it to the ground: leave the brown structural twigs in place. Tip: Since I don't want to step on my peony clumps in winter, I cut the tops of old plastic pots to make 1" wide rims and put them around dormant plants to make them more noticeable.
Q: I have a fescue lawn that constantly yields small sweetgum saplings from a tree that was cut down five years ago. What is the best method to insure that I kill each sapling? — Randy Harrison, Gwinnett County
A: Honestly, the best way is the simple way: Clip or mow the leafy sprouts regularly, thereby starving the sweetgum root pieces that still have life after the main tree was cut down. If you consistently remove leaves, I guarantee the sprouts will gradually stop emerging.
Q: Do you have any advice on the best soil composition for a bonsai tree indoors? — Kristin Jones, email
A: Several "tree-like" indoor plants can be trained to have the classic bonsai look. Jade plant, ficus and Norfolk Island pine are prime candidates. As such, they don't need anything more complicated than commercial potting soil. But one factor to keep in mind is that your plants will be growing in the same container for several years. As time passes, the soil will become compacted and resistant to water passing freely through it. Make a note on your calendar to repot your indoor bonsai with new soil every couple of years.