Peonies and Their Ants

And their sisters and their cousins whom they reckon up by dozens… no, no, just joking, but there are all kinds of nifty peonies.

And all of them have ants. Long ago, some observant gardener noticed that ants on peony buds always meant the flowers would open soon. Always. And so a bit of folk wisdom was born: Peonies cannot open until ants eat away the seal that keeps the buds closed.

I grew up believing this, my mother went to her grave believing it, and just the other day I heard it repeated again. But it isn’t true. The thing the ants are eating is nectar, not glue, and what this does for the peony is make sure there are plenty of ants around to eat any soft-bodied insects that might like to eat peonies.

ant-on-peony-bud.jpg

This bud belongs to a super-early short peony that opens almost a month before the common (lactiflora) kind. It was here when we got the house and all we know about it is that it’s tough. The double flowers last a long time, too, a mixed blessing given that they are – to put it kindly – magenta.

fernleaf-peony-group.jpg

When these fern leaf peony buds open the flowers will be single, in a clear true red. They’ll last about 35 seconds. And that nifty foliage will disappear by midsummer. Catalogs that describe fern leafs ( P. tenuifolia ) as rare and special seldom mention these attributes, but it’s something to bear in mind before plunking down large dollars. Oh, also they take several years to settle in and start blooming well. On the good side, they’re indestructible, even in acid soil that gets only a few hours of sun. And once you have them, you have them. Even small bits of root make new plants.

old-famstead-peony.jpg

Ok, ok, here’s a picture of an actual peony, probably Queen Victoria, one of the antique varieties that came with the place.

Peony Tips Worth Repeating:

*They do need sun, but not that much; with most varieties you can get decent flowers from a half day’s worth and the farther south you are, the more the peonies can use a break from broiling afternoons.

* Be sure to plant shallowly – those fat growth buds should be no more than an inch and a half below ground. The number one cause of bloom failure is over-deep planting… or, over time, the gradual movement of compost and mulch that buries those buds as effectively as if you had done it yourself.

* They don’t like acid soil; if rhododendrons are doing great, better you add some lime to the peony bed before you start planting.

* Fall is the best time to plant. Potted peonies can go in the ground now, but the bare root kind – the kind with all the dazzling choices – must be planted in fall.

* No peony parts in the compost! The Botrytis blight that plagues them – their own personal fungus: Botrytis paeoniae – is ever present, even on apparently healthy growth, so everything that leaves the peony bed should stay gone: discarded bouquets , the fall cleanup pile, Everything. Burn it if you can, toss it deep into the woods where no peonies will ever grow, or be deeply retrogressive and send it to the landfill.

* Peonies last a long time as cut flowers and can be held in bud stage for a month or more – if you have the room in the refrigerator. For an exhaustive and very useful treatment of cut-flower choices and procedures, download Fresh Cut Peonies, from Kansas State University.

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21 Comments »

  • Owen Jones Said,

    First of all thanks for the info on ants, your comments have resolved an issue between myself and my “gardener”. I said to her it was a myth. I have a fern leaf peony which last season had 36 flowers, this year May 15 Zone 3, Calgary Alberta Canada it is now emerging so the tally isn’t in as of yet. Our flowers, I must say last longer than 35 seconds, so do we have a mutation? The plant is a amazing, in my mind. Any comments?
    Regards,
    Owen Jones

  • leslie Said,

    Welcome, Owen

    Glad to hear the post is helping to dispel the ant myth. Fear we have a long way to go; it seems to be very persistent.

    I am in awe of your fernleaf peony; the thing must be enormous. But I doubt it’s a mutation, I think it’s just in Calgary, 2 or 3 zones north of here. Like all early bloomers, this peony lasts a lot longer when the weather stays cool throughout its performance. And because the foliage is ephemeral, having a long growing season for IT may help explain that amazing largeness.

    Our fernleafs have been up for ages and opened 2 weeks ago ( or more; being a dreadful record keeper I didn’t write down the date). The flowers lasted for several days and then we had one of those hot blasts, temps in the upper 70’s, and that was the end of that.

    Speaking of cool weather lovers, how long can you cut rhubarb up there?

  • Elaine Montgomery Said,

    It’s taken me 2 years to get a nice looking peony plant;however, both last year and this year, I get lots of buds but something is eating the buds. I get no flowers. Can you tell me what this might be and what I can do to prevent this from happening? I love peonies!

  • leslie Said,

    Hi Elaine,

    Peony buds are often blasted by botrytis or so damaged by late frost that although they appear, they cannot swell. But obvious chomping is pretty rare. Please tell us more about the offender’s dining habits – are we talking big bites out? holes bored into the tips? damage that cannot be seen until you cut the bud open?

    I confess myself intrigued and look forward to your description!

  • Sandi Greene Said,

    The entire bud of my peonies have been eaten. I suspect squirrels as the eat the buds of my oriental poppies.

  • Monica Anderson Said,

    Hi, I just purchased a red leaf peony and planted it in my flower bed next to a common green leaf peony which is doing great – but the red leaves on the new peony are getting scorched by the sun. Do I have to replant this in a shady spot or is it trying to adjust? I live in Montana where there is little shade and lots of “big sky” and sun.

  • leslie Said,

    Elaine, it sounds as though

    Sandi

    may have answered your question. I’ve never seen it happen ( or heard of it before now) but that doesn’t mean much; squirrels will eat almost anything if you treasure it enough.

    Monica,
    Was the plant sold to you as a “red leafed peony?? I don’t think there are any. All peonies have reddish shots when they first come up in spring and some dark flowered, dark-leafed types can make a good sized red bush before they start turning green. If what you bought was one of those, that new foliage would be very tender, easily burnt by sun and wind. If you can nurse it along this first summer so it gets a chance to put out some roots, it may well do better next year.

    Or it may not. Peonies prefer to be planted in fall, and that’s when specialists ship their wares, so if this one never takes hold you can still replace it this year.

  • Sandi Greene Said,

    Leslie,what you say of squirrels is so true. I watch them tear around my garden being so destructive. It almost seems intentional.

  • leslie Said,

    Hi again Sandi

    Guess you could say it IS intentional: they intend to eat something tasty. The really tough part is that it’s not malicious; they don’t know they’re driving us crazy, which sort of makes it worse.

  • Sandi Greene Said,

    Thanks for the reminder Leslie,
    It is sometimes hard not to anthropomorphize the little critters and to think they are harbouring some malevolence. I came out this morning to find the flowers on one of my rose bushes eaten. I think it must be squirrels as I don’t really know what else it could be. It is frustrating to say the least.

  • Rachael Said,

    Hi,
    I would love to have peonies in my yard. When should I plant them and is there an online store to purchase?
    Thanks,
    Rachael
    PS- do they like sun, part sun or shade?

  • leslie Said,

    Welcome, Rachel

    I should have put Peony tips (above ) in bold a lot sooner! Most of your questions are answered there. And – because I LOVE peonies – there are several other peony posts. Easiest way to find them is to search for peony in the ” search” box on the right, near the top of the page.

    As far as I know, all the first tier peony nurseries sell online. Two of my favorites are Klehm’s Song Sparrow and Adelman Peony Gardens .

  • Leona Said,

    I have a question? but first I wanted to say it is very interesting
    to read other peoples Q & A ! thank you!!

    My question is/ I have a nice fern peony and i love it, it had about four blooms on it but not all the buds got big enough to bloom ! but i want to
    make another bush from it, but when it flowers the pedels of the flower has black on it and now they are finished blooming and it looks like they have seed pods where the bloom was ,do I plant those ? or cut them off and or dig part of plant and plant it ?
    and should i fertilize it i don’t know what to use?

  • leslie Said,

    Hi Leona

    glad you’re on board. As regards your questions:

    *not all buds bloomed – happens frequently. If hot weather hits, even for a day, the ones that aren’t almost ready often decide not to both.

    *black on the petals – the pollen is purple black and can be abundant

    *planting seeds – it’s a different species from common peonies so the seeds would probably come true, but it’ll be a long time before the babies are big enough to flower.

    * cut off spent flowers to conserve plant energy

    * and, of course, your basic question: get more plants by dividing. Roots should be dug in late summer ( mark the spot; foliage will be gone by then). You’ll see clearly where to divide when you look at the clump. Be very careful when digging, roots are not deep and they run a long way horizontally – start digging carefully, with a fork not a spade, about a foot away from the outermost foliage. Replant at once, ideally in a spot that gets full sun until about noon and is then partially shaded for the rest of the day. If the soil is good quality, rich in organic matter, you won’t have to fertilize, but the plant will appreciate a skirt of compost in the spring. Spread generously, remembering those wide roots, and don’t let it touch the stems.

    and good luck making yourself lots more; they really ARE beautiful.

  • Davene Said,

    Hi Leslie,
    Your blog came up when I was researching ants and peonies.
    We have red ants–ugh. And they are on the peony buds.
    Will they hurt the peonies or only me?

  • leslie Said,

    Hi Davene,

    DEEPEST sympathies. As far as I know leafcutter ants are the only ones that damage plants, so the peonies should be fine. You, it’s a different story.

    Peonies are usually most ant-infested before they open, but there are at least a few stragglers pretty much all the time – that’s why it’s always a good idea to make peony bouquets outdoors and leave them there ( in a cool place sheltered from the sun) for a couple of hours. Most of the lurking ants will depart and that’s always been enough with the black ones.

    Red, I dunno.
    And hope I never learn firsthand. But I’m sure you’re not alone so do please report back if the outdoor rest period does the job (or not!). Expect I don’t need to suggest you wear long, fairly heavy gloves like dishwashing gloves while cutting and arranging…

  • Liz Nealon Said,

    Hi. I am the producer of an educational website for children based on Seymour Simon’s science books. I found your gorgeous site (which I’m bookmarking for myself!) while do a web search for images of ants on peony buds.

    We do a weekly feature for kids called Animal Fact, Animal Fiction, where we debunk myths and “common wisdom”. I’m hoping to do an entry next week on ants and peonies, since it’s the season.

    I’m writing to ask if you would consider giving us permission – with a photo credit, of course – to use your image. Thanks for your consideration!

    (permission was granted)

  • Pamela Said,

    Hi!!! I too am having issues with red ants and my peonies!! I planted them three years ago and so far the past two Springs I notice a lot of red ants on the buds!! They definitely do something to the plant that stops all the buds from blossoming….any tips???
    Thanks,
    Pamela

    Welcome Pamela,
    Do wish I had tips for red ants but as far as I’ve been able to research they are no more harmful to the buds than other kinds of ants.
    Are the buds well-developed before the ants get there or are they still quite small when the ants show up? Do they turn black at some point or just mummify? The only explanation I can think of is that if the ants are very active early in the season, they may be carrying lots of botrytis from the soil level to the plant tips, but that’s a pretty wild guess.
    On the not-wild (and encouraging) side, 3 years is pretty young for a peony to be in good stride. Like lilacs, they sometimes bloom the very first year using stored energy from the growing field, then fail to flower for a few years until they get well established.
    Oh, just a thought – where are you? Hot weather can do in peony buds, and red ants and hot places do go together like, well, like ants and peonies.
    Good luck this year.
    Leslie

  • Hazel Said,

    Hi! Today after church I noticed that my peonies are being eating down into the flower bud. Therefore I’ve had to remove most of the buds. Can you help?

    Hi Hazel,

    I wish I COULD help! Most I can do is offer suggestions.
    First comes figuring out what’s doing the eating. It might be a beetle or it might be a caterpillar. There’s a smooth one that looks like a green worm that can cause a lot of trouble.
    So, start by cutting an eaten bud – or 3 – to see if there’s a “worm” inside. If so, spray the remaining buds with an insecticide based on Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), which kills caterpillars without bothering anything else.
    If you find no caterpillar, keep an eye out for little brown beetles. There’s not much you can do about them – even strong poisons don’t work very well. But you might be able to limit damage simply by going out early and knocking them into a bucket of soapy water.
    Good luck! (May this be the only year this happens to you)

  • dar Said,

    There is a green worn eating my peony buds. Any idea what it is and what I can do about it? I have 38 peony plants. So far 3 buds on 2 different plants have been damaged. Help!

    Hi Dar,

    At least you’re one up on Hazel (pls. see her comment, above). She didn’t know WHAT was eating her peonies.”Worm” equals “caterpillar, in this case, in that the little green monster(s) will likely be done in by the Bt. I’ve noticed a nibble or two on my peonies as well. Seems like this is a particularly bad year – maybe because of the mild winter. Hope your damage stays minimal!

  • Hi All, here is a hint my Son gave me about Watermelons, if you don’t notice any bees around the blooms, take a Q-Tip and go to each flower and rub the Q-Tip on the center, like the Bee’s do and you will pollinate them yourself!! Isn’t that neat? I thought so, enjoy! God Bless, Gwynn

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