Saunders Peonies

Terms Used in Descriptions

Cultivar: The name given to the peony by Saunders; in some cases, the original garden name was changed or modified, most often due to learning the name had already been used by another hybridizer for a different peony.

Year: Saunders peonies predate the current registration system whereby hybridizers submit a formal description and photograph of their peony to the Registrar of the American Peony Society.  Dates given are for the year of “introduction”, perhaps by entrance into a flower show, description in an article, or entry into a sales catalogue.

Seedling Number: Saunders assigned a number to every peony in his garden (over 17,000!) including species and cultivars from other hybridizers.  Some of these numbers appear in catalogues or other publications but many were uncovered only by carefully perusing Saunders’ notebooks I and III.  I found the numbers for woody peonies only in Silvia Saunders’ notebook.  (These notebooks or copies were given to APS by Silvia Saunders or other relatives.)


  • Herbaceous Numbers: The crosses Saunders made between species were assigned numbers 0-28 in the APS publication The Peonies, edited by John C. Wister. At the time, lactiflora was referred to as P. albiflora. Pure lactiflora cultivars were given a “0” designation and the following numbers were assigned alphabetically by the species involved in the cross. Most of Saunders’ crosses were done using lactiflora as the female (pod) parent; the “reverse cross” with the other species as the female parent was given the same number followed by “A”. F2’s were given the number followed by “B”; I added a “C” for other types of crosses such as back crosses. Some of the higher numbered categories refer to crosses involving more than two species and/or species not including lactiflora, e.g. 16. corsica X macrophylla. Although we are missing many of his introductions, we can look to other peonies from that cross to capture many of the same characteristics (and genetic material).
  • Woody Groups: I have not been able to access the woody peony records, so no specific parentage is given.  Apparently those records are not nearly as detailed as the herbaceous peony notebooks. Saunders grouped the woody peonies by flower form and color into six groups, named after one of the typical peonies in that group: I. The Roman Gold Group: yellow singles; II. The Golden Hind Group: yellow semi-double or double; III. The Tea Rose Group: yellow with reddish blends; IV. The Banquet Group: reddish with yellow undertones; V. The Black Pirate Group: very dark red/maroon; VI. The Mystery Group: ivories, suffused mauves, pearled shades.

Flower Color: This includes the main petal color plus veining, edges, overlays, and flares.  Terms used are very much up to the individual; published descriptions vary, e.g. “cream”, “ivory”, “light yellow” may be used to describe the same color, and don’t get me started on the variations of “red”.  (Fortunately, I was trained in Drosophila genetics where “scarlet”, “vermilion”, “rosy”, “cinnabar”, “claret” and more describe different eye colors and the gene mutations responsible for the variations.) I based descriptions on what I perceived from my photographs, with most photos having been taken with the same camera and lens.

Flower Form: “Single” refers to 1 or 2 rows of petals, “semi-double” to 3 to perhaps 5 or 6 rows, and “double” to large numbers of petals. Most of Saunders peonies are singles and only a very few are true doubles, e.g. ‘Vesuvian’.

Bloom Week: The peony bloom season can extend up to 7 weeks, starting with the earliest species and ending with the late lactifloras. It varies with geographic location so rather than assigning a particular date, bloom time is specified as Weeks 1 -7.  The weeks reported are mostly based on 2020 bloom in my Iowa garden when Week 1 began on April 27 and extended through Week 6 ending on June 7.  I had no significant bloom after that.

Carpels: These vary in number from 2 to 6 or more; flowers on the same plant can have different numbers of carpels meaning numbers aren’t the best feature to use in distinguishing between cultivars.  In herbaceous peonies their color can be a light yellowish green, green, or various red shades. They can have hairs giving them a grey appearance.  The botanical terms are “glabrous” (no hairs) and “tomentose” (with hairs) but Saunders used the term “woolly” for those with hairs and I decided for now to keep that term.  Woody peonies always have green carpels.

Stigmas: Technically the stigma refers only to the uppermost surface receptive to pollen, but peony breeders use it to refer to the area at the top the carpel (style) which comes in varying colors from white through dark red.  Stigma color is extremely useful in distinguishing between look-alikes. Unfortunately, stigma color was generally not recorded in Saunders catalogues (used as the basis for descriptions in the online APS Cultivar Registry). Silvia recorded stigma color for many herbaceous peonies in her notebook and described some in the article on woody peonies co-written with David Reath (reprinted in The Best of 75 Years by APS).

Disc (herbaceous): The flat tissue encircling the base of the carpels and stamens is most often quite inconspicuous in herbaceous peonies and I have not yet given it the attention needed to specify its color. The disc is usually cream colored but may have pink pigments on the edges of the nodules. When the color is specified, either the disc showed in one of my photos or Silvia Saunders had noted it.

Sheath (woody): In woody peonies the equivalent structure to the disc is much more prominent as it grows up the base of the carpels and stamens. Sheaths may be cream through dark purple.

Stamens: The filaments (stems) can be almost white through yellow to dark red. The anthers are always yellow, so I’ve only noted their color if they appear slightly orange-yellow or have red streaks. Stamens vary from sparse through abundant (Silvia Saunders referred to flowers with abundant stamens as having a “large heart”).  They can be short or long, even or uneven.  All of these differences can help identify a cultivar.

Plant Habit: Most peonies form rounded bushes, but some are decidedly more upright while others spread broadly.

Foliage Color: Leaves, petioles, and stems come in varying shades of green and may be tinged red.  I will be photographing more leaves in 2021 to better document colors and foliage form.

Foliage Form: Herbaceous peony leaves may be entire (not lobed) or exhibit various degrees of lobing. Lower leaves are often different from terminal leaves. Woody peony leaves are always lobed.  Width can vary as well with fine leaves often indicating tenuifolia or anomala heritage and very broad leaves macrophylla heritage.

Height: If specified, it is from other people’s observations.  Another task for 2021 is to measure all my plants!