Side buds on peonies - Many garden peonies produce side buds that will develop smaller flowers just under the main flower. The main peony flower develops from the terminal bud at the top of a stem. Lateral buds develop on the sides of the stem, generally just above leaf nodes. These are commonly referred to as side buds and produce smaller versions of the main flower - with or without variation in the style or shape.
Side buds on peonies are common on varieties that originated from lactiflora species – many of the old fashioned, heirloom peonies produce these ‘bonus’ buds. Two or three side buds are common, with some varieties producing 5-7 per stem (weather conditions year to year can affect how many).
Hybrid cultivars from two different species are less likely to produce side buds – although, they do occur, often fleetingly. Itoh intersectional peonies are generally prolific side bud producers.
Why would you want to disbud peonies? Three reasons come to my mind for disbudding side buds. One is to improve packaging and handling – side buds tangle and then break off during cut flower processing. Who wants to lift cut flowers out of a floral box, only to have them tangled and have both the side buds and main flower bud break when trying to separate them? Try bunching peonies with side buds and you’ll see what I mean – been there, done that.
Another reason commercial cut flower growers and gardeners disbud peonies is to increase the size of the main flower. Removing the side buds will put more energy into developing the main flower. Competitors in floral exhibitions do this in the hopes of having a larger flower; and, some competitions do not allow side buds on entries.
Thirdly, you may want to disbud to ‘take some weight off’ of a plant that tends to be top heavy. It may prevent the need to stake a particular variety that can’t stand up through wind and rain. A weak stemmed peony may never benefit from disbudding – so enjoy it staked up in its full glory.
How to disbud a peony? As the side buds start to mature (about a month before bloom) they appear similar to tiny round peas, just above a leaf node under the main bud. They may be green, red, maroon or any variety of those colors. Wait until they have a bit of size to them, for more control in minimizing damage to the leaf. I use my thumb and forefinger to either pinch them off or ‘roll’ them off sideways. While it is rather simple to disbud, take care to not damage the stem – you’ll figure out the best technique with a bit of practice. Just be sure you aren’t taking off the main, terminal bud at the top of each stem – that would make you cry come bloom season.
Side buds are a bonus - I disbud only a small portion of our peonies for cut flowers or competition. I leave the rest with as many side buds as they produce. Most gardeners are delighted to have side buds on peonies, as it extends the bloom on each plant. We sell a variety of cut peonies at our farm – with and without side buds. When I display large crocks of cut flowers for customers to choose their own from, the ones with extra buds go first. Peony customers are smart – they know that while one peony flower is exquisite, two or more are stupendous.
When admiring peonies that have been altered with supports/stakes or disbudding, keep in mind that they may perform differently for you, unless you also stake or disbud. We give our customers a chance to see peony plants as they will grow and perform in their garden. If they stand up here, unsupported, they should for you, too (we grow many upright varieties and cultivars). If they are dripping with side buds, you can anticipate that, too!