Paeonia officinalis1

Perennials. Roots tuberous-thickened. Caudex short, less than 10 cm long. Stems mostly hirsute, green or purple—red, 25—80 cm tall. Lower leaves biternate, with 9 leaflets; petioles 6-12 cm long, mostly hirsute; petiolules 1-6 cm long, mostly hirsute; leaflets usually segmented; leaflets/leaf segments 11-130 in number, linear-elliptic to elliptic, or oblanceolate, cuneate at the base, acuminate or acute at the apex, lobed or entire, 3—12 cm long, 1-4.5 cm wide, glabrous above, villose, rarely glabrous beneath. Flowers solitary, terminal; involucrate bracts 1—2 in number, leaf-like, relatively distinct from sepals; sepals 3—5 in number, deltoid-orbicular to orbicular, 1-2.5 cm long, 0.8-2 cm wide, mostly rounded at the apex, hispidulous or glabrous on the abaxial side; petals 5—8 in number, pale violet-red or purple-red; filaments purple; anthers yellow; disk up to 1 mm high, flat or waved, red; carpels 1—5, mostly 2—3, in number, tomentose or glabrous, hairs 1.5-2 mm long, yellow, brown or pink; stigmas sessile, red, c. 1.5 mm wide. Follicles long—ovoid when young.


Paeonia officinalis ssp microcarpa in Portugal - Copyright Samuel da Costa

Paeonia officinalis ssp microcarpa in Portugal – Copyright Samuel da Costa

Chromosome number: 2n = 20 (see each subspecies for additional information).

Widely distributed from the Iberian Peninsula to the Balkans via France, Italy and Switzerland.

Paeonia officinalis is the typical species of the genus Paeonia, but its circumscription was not clear and it was confused both with P. peregrina (de Candolle, 1818, 1824; Baker, 1884; Lynch, 1890; Huth, 1891), until the work of Stapf (1918), and with P. mascula (e.g. Fiori, 1898). The species is extremely variable because of great variation in natural populations and extensive cultivation, as demonstrated by the more than 20 specific and many infraspecific synonyms included here. For example, the entity in the Iberian Peninsula and SW France has leaflets/leaf segments numbering more than 50, which are mostly lobed, whereas that in the Balkans has no more than 24 leaflets/leaf segments, which are mostly entire. In the Iberian Peninsula and SW France, the great majority of carpels are glabrous (over 90%), whereas they are totally tomentose in all the other populations. However, the peony here circumscripted cannot be clearly split, and all the differences, even the clear ones mentioned above, are bridged by intermediate forms. Paeonia officinalis is morphologically polytypical with its types closely correlated with geography.

Five types could be recognised and are treated here as five subspecies.

1a. Carpels glabrous, occasionally sparsely hirsute; sepals mostly glabrous; leaflets/leaf segments usually obtuse at the apex, often lobed; stems mostly glabrous: subsp. microcarpa

1b. Carpels tomentose; sepals usually pubescent; leaflets/leaf segments usually acuminate at apex, entire, rarely lobed; stems hirsute or glabrous.

     2a. Leaflets/leaf segments 11—24 in number, 2—4.5 cm wide, glabrous or sparsely villose beneath; sepals glabrous or sparsely pubescent: subsp. banatica

     2b. Leaflets/leaf segments 19—130 in number, 1—3 cm wide, always villose beneath; sepals always pubescent.

          3a. Leaflets/leaf segments 35-130 in number, always with some lobed, 1—2 cm wide: subsp. huthii

          3b. Leaflets/leaf segments 19-45 in number, all entire or occasionally very few lobed, 1-3 cm wide.

               4a. Leaves villose-floccose beneath, hairs flattened at base: subsp. italica

               4b. Leaves hairy but never villose-floccose beneath, hairs cylindrical: subsp. officinalis

Paeonia officinalis subsp microcarpa

Chromosome number: 2n = 20 (tetraploid)

Growing in pine woods or in thickets in limestone areas at altitudes from 400 to 2,050 m. Distributed in Portugal, Spain and SW France.

Paeonia officinalis subsp. microcarpa is rather distinct from the other four subspecies of P. officinalis in having carpels glabrous, or very rarely hirsute. Among 89 flowers examined, only 6 have carpels that are sparsely hirsute and one has moderately hirsute carpels; by contrast carpels in the other four subspecies are all tomentoseSepals are usually glabrous or sparsely hairy in this subspecies, also contrasting with the others. In addition, the leaflets/leaf segments in this subspecies are generally more numerous than those in the other four subspecies and are often lobed. Seeds ellipsoid, black, 7-8 mm long, 5-6 mm wide.

Paeonia officinalis subsp banatica

Chromosome number: 2n = 20

In thickets or sparse woods of sand soil at altitudes below 1,000 m. Bosnia-Herzegovina, Hungary (S), Romania (SW), and Serbia.

Paeonia officinalis subsp. banatica is rather distinct from the typical one. It has fewer leaflets/leaf segments, mostly 13-18, rarely down to 11 and up to 24, compared to subsp. officinalis with mostly more than 25. The leaflets/leaf segments in this subspecies are wider than those in the other subspecies (2—4.5 rather than 1—3 cm); they are also less densely villose or even glabrous beneath. Sepals are hispidulous or glabrous in this subspecies, Whereas they are always pubescent in subsp. officinalis, subsp. italica, and subsp. huthii.

Seeds ellipsoid, black, 7—8 mm long, c. 5 mm in diameter.

The roots in this subspecies are always tuberous, and sometimes tandom-tuberous, rather long, running horizontally and vertically. Therefore, Rochel’s (1828) figure of the root is wrong, whereas Reichenbach’s (1840) figure of the root is correct. New shoots were found rising from tubers in our field observation at Deliblat in the Banat Region of Serbia in 2003, and thus this subspecies may be vegetatively reproductive to some extent.

Paeonia officinalis subsp huthii

Chromosome number:  2n = 20 (tetraploid)

Growing in sparse Quercus, Fagus or Quercus—Fagus forests or in pastures with sparse Pinus sylvestris trees, in limestone areas, at altitudes from 900 to 1,970 m. A relatively narrowly distributed entity found in NW Italy (Imperia Prov.), and SE and S France. In S France (Herault and le Vigan) the entity meets subsp. microcarpa.

Paeonia officinalis subsp italica

Chromosome number: 2n=20 (tetraploid).

Growing in open communities at an altitude of 650—1,800 m. Confined to central Italy, Croatia and N Albania.

Paeonia officinalis subsp officinalis

Chromosome number: 2n = 20

In sparse pine or oak woods, thickets, or mountain meadows in limestone areas at an altitude of 500—2,000 m. Croatia, N Italy, Slovenia and S Switzerland; relatively common in N Italy.

Images below: Paeonia officinalis ssp microcarpa in Portugal. Copyright Samuel da Costa

  1. Hong, De-Yuan. “Peonies of the World. Taxonomy and phytogeography.” Kew: Royal Botanic Gardens, 2010, p. 230[]

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