My sister-in-law is a die-hard “no money” gardener. She takes cuttings from friends and strangers, and tries to grow everything possible from seed. Last week, she was talking about growing peonies from seed and the difficulty she was having. I told her that most peonies are complicated hybrids that do not come from true seed so she might be at it for years without success. The best way to raise a new plant is to start with a root division.
Even if you only take a small clump with just one or two eyes (underground growth buds), it will produce a blooming plant in half the time it would take a seed to deliver — assuming you can even find a seed for some of the new cultivars. More important, using a division ensures that the plant you’ll get will be just like its parent.
As I said, most peonies are complicated hybrids. To reproduce from seed, the plant would have to be a pure species type. Nevertheless, many gardeners do plant seeds just to see what develops (my sister-in-law is definitely one of those). If you want to give it a go, choose seeds that have become firm and black; those that stay red are infertile. Sow the seeds in autumn, in moisture-retentive but well-drained soil, about an inch deep and a foot apart. Wait for signs of growth. You might see something the next spring, but the second spring is more likely and it may even take until the spring after that. Make sure the soil doesn’t dry out while you’re waiting.
The seeds must have a warm, moist period to sprout, then a cold one to begin rooting, then warmth and moisture again before they start thinking about making growth buds. Sometimes, for reasons best known to peonies, they think about it for another year just to be on the safe side.
Eventually, most will send up shoots. In the fall, transplant the young peonies to their assigned growing places. Wait some more. If all goes well, you might get flowers the third year after transplanting, but don’t be surprised if it takes longer.
Additional blog posts about peonies: