Woody (Tree) Peonies

Very early in his peony breeding endeavors, Professor Saunders began crosses with woody peonies. These peonies were (and still are by many) referred to as tree peonies but because they are multistemmed and short, “woody” or “shrubby” are more accurate terms (as Saunders himself wrote).  The American Peony Society encourages the use of the term “woody”. The woody peonies cultivated for centuries in Japan tend to be single with colors ranging from white through pink; these are the ones Saunders used in his crosses. (Earlier breeders in France used double forms from China.)

Current taxonomists use the term Moutan to refer to the entire section of woody peonies with the suffruticosas in the subsection Vaginatae. Recent DNA research shows that the suffruticosas are hybrids of several species so the correct designation is Paeonia x suffruticosa.

China is also the home of the subsection Delavayanae, including P. delavayi with red and orange flowers, and P. lutea (or P. delavayi ssp. lutea), P. ludlowii, and P. potaninii with yellow flowers.  Saunders apparently had forms of at least three of these species – delavayi, lutea, and potaninii (photographed by Silvia Saunders in 1934 under the name forestii trolliodes) but likely did not use the latter in his breeding program.  The first P. lutea Saunders obtained was likely a cross with the reddish P. delavayi and is referred to in his notes as “L-D”.

Saunders crossed various Moutans with P. delavayi or P. lutea to produce a wider range of colors and patterns. He called these lutea hybrids, a term still applied today.  Most notable were the golden yellow hybrids, ‘Argosy’ being the first. Because of the considerable time between making a cross and obtaining a mature blooming specimen and the relative infertility of the F1 hybrids, Saunders only produced a few F2’s. ‘Heart of Darkness’ is one F2 he named.  His breeding work was first carried on by Nassos Daphnis in the gardens of William Gratwick and then by others, notably David Reath and William Seidl. When Silvia Saunders closed the nursery she distributed his plants to Reath.

His woody peony breeding notebook only occasionally records specific species and cultivars as the parents of his cultivars. References to “Reath and Saunders” refer to an article in the American Peony Society Bulletin written by David Reath and Silvia Saunders and reprinted in The Best of 75 Years, APS, 1979. Seedling numbers were obtained from Silvia Saunders’ Notebook and from index cards given to APS.

Click on a photo to view the description.

In My Garden…

Age of Gold


Amber Moon





Black Panther

Black Pirate



Chinese Dragon






Gold Sovereign

Golden Bowl

Golden Hind

Golden Isles

Golden Vanitie


Happy Days


Heart of Darkness


High Noon


Ice Age







Right Royal

Roman Gold

Savage Splendor

Silver Plane

Silver Sails

Spring Carnival

Summer Night


Tiger Tiger


Wings of the Morning


In My Garden…Peony Mixups


Received as ‘Apricot,’ Likely ‘Golden Vanitie’

Received as ‘Corsair’; is ‘Maria Teressa’ (Daphnis)

Received as ‘Golden Mandarin’ Identified by Nate Bremer as ‘Demetra’ (Daphnis) 

Received as ‘Holiday’;  Is ‘Iphigenia’ (Daphnis)

Received as ‘Holiday’; Is ‘Iphigenia’ (Daphnis)

Additional Saunders woody peonies


Known to be in existence…

Arcadia, Black Douglas, Celestial, Charioteer, Conquest, Countess, Festival, Harlequin, Hyperion, Narcissus, Princess, Red Currant, Red Cloud, Red Jade, Rose Flame, Segovia, Spanish Gold, Stardust, Sunrising. I have recently acquired a few of these and will be updating information as plants develop.



Black Douglas Panther



Rose Flame


Red Cloud


Likely Lost…

Centaur*, Gold Dust**, Golden Mandarin (correct single form)**, Lombard**, Melody, Monitor, Nankeen**, Nereid, Noelle de Mosa (suffruticosa), Pastoral, Phoenix*, Tea Rose, Titania, Trophy.

* listed as to be discarded by Saunders

** still being listed in 1965 Saunders Nursery Catalogue so may be around