How can I know what's dead wood?

RachaelLemmon(5)May 19, 2013

Hi , I inherited a beautiful tree peony with my new home. Over the last three years it seems to be less and less full. I'm afraid to cut the wood stems/branches ... I'm not confident it's dead seeing how it all looks the same except for the fact that some branches have no growth on them. Please help, I love this tree and am afraid that its dying over time. I have attached photos, the mid section of the tree is all but gone, it was full with tons of blooms in previous years. I just don't know what's wrong. Thanks for any advice.

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Another photo

    Bookmark   May 19, 2013 at 1:56PM
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A clearer picture of the whole tree .

    Bookmark   May 19, 2013 at 2:01PM
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It may just be getting too old with too many flowering stems, and lack of vigor in the roots kind of like an old tree.

The good news is that you can revive an old tree peony.

First I would suggest cutting off all the flowers after they finish blooming as going to seed requires lots of energy. Cutting off all the old stems will help a bit too.

In the fall by around September when it is close to dormant, then I would suggest carefully digging out the entire plant and replanting the whole thing almost on its side, or diagonally, but making sure most of the roots are underground along with most of the above ground buds being underground as well. Creating a raised mound will help in drainage as you don't want the plant to be too damp over the winter. It's ok to have some buds above ground as you probably don't want it to be too deep as aeration is important.

If everything goes right, you should see many non-flowering sprouts emerge from the underground. Those likely won't flower on that year however they should be able to form roots, and produce a nice bushy plant.

This is basically a form of layering which is a way to propagate tree peonies, but it is also a way to reinvigorate old tree peonies that are losing their vigor.

    Bookmark   May 19, 2013 at 10:37PM
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So cutting off the "old stems" would I just be cutting those in the second photo that appear to have no buds or also removing ones that do ? I'm so lost. I've been told by others to never prune a tree peony because it can take years to see new growth if at all. I did remove some suckers just today ... That is obvious to me as the leaves are not similar to the tree .

    Bookmark   May 19, 2013 at 11:19PM
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Also, it's worth noting that since I cleaned up the flower bed ... There were obviously many years of neglect, they're is now tons of yarrow sprouting up all around the base of the tree that must have been planted years ago . Could the yarrow be crowding it? I hadn't dug it out because I didn't want to cause more harm to the tree by digging around the roots .

    Bookmark   May 19, 2013 at 11:24PM
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I think one possibility is that your tree peony has a parasitic nurse root that is trying to overtake the tree peony, and there hasn't been adequate growth on the main root system from the tree peony.

If you replant the whole thing with a lot of the wood under the soil, you should be able to successfully layer it, and cause root growth. It may be tough at the beginning, but for the overall health of a tree peony, it can't have a nurse root growing that is attached to it sucking away its energy. Perhaps it was never planted deep enough.

    Bookmark   May 20, 2013 at 8:16PM
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I noticed today that some of the wood was hollow at the bottom... When would I want to replant it deeper? In autumn ? I just really think something recent happened because it was lush and beautiful in spring 2010 and it's been thinking out since. Today it flowered and I'm so sad to see the state of it. Hoping I won't lose it so I will try anything . Thank you so much for taking the time to give me information.

    Bookmark   May 20, 2013 at 8:25PM
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I think it is fine, blooming need a lot of nutrition, if it was full with tons of blooms in previous year, the next year it may has less bloom, you can consider give some nutrition.

    Bookmark   May 21, 2013 at 9:09AM
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From americanpeonysociety


I have a very large pink peony that use to bloom with a lot of large flowers. Some years back it started having one flower. I finally moved it and replanted it in a different location. That didn't help. It had only one flower again this year. It has a lot of green foliage and a lot of small buds, but only one develops into a flower�"the rest of the buds shrink.


Such a complete failure in development of the flower buds suggests a plant that is in a state of serious decline. Decline results from failure of a plant to store sufficient food in a growing season to fully support growth and flowering the following spring. My first thought is that something must be changing progressively for the worse where your peony is located, possibly during multiple seasons. Decline most often results from reduced availability of moisture, light and soil nutrients, as by trees or large shrubs nearby. A multi-year drought cycle, as happened recently in the Midwest, in absence ofadequate irrigation, will aggravate the problems of root competition. If the problem is in fact encroachment by shallow rooting trees and shrub roots and when these dominant plants are to remain, then the best bet may be to take up the peony plant, divide it and replant elsewhere. However, if competition is not an obvious explanation for the decline, it might be worthwhile to give increased cultivation for a couple of seasons�"supplemental fertilizers, compost and weekly irrigation when it is not raining�"to see if the plant can be brought to acceptable performance.

At maturity peonies have a large root run, many of them more than four feet in diameter and extending more than 18 inches deep when in a well aerated soil. Prepare the soil widely and well. They want good fertility, well fortified with both organic matter and mineral nutrients. Most kinds do best with the soil near neutral in acidity. In heavier soils raised beds are generally advantageous.

To make the best use of their growing season they need soil moisture so long as the leaves remain green, either from rainfall or supplemental irrigation. Once weekly thorough irrigation is needed when there is not an inch of rain per week.

For additional information obtain a copy of Handbook of the Peony.

    Bookmark   May 21, 2013 at 9:33AM
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I couldn't just trash the suckers I always bring them inside :) but clearly they do not belong with the tree.....

    Bookmark   May 31, 2013 at 6:21PM
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jayco(5b NY)

Those are from suckers? I am by no means a tree peony expert, but with any grafted plant you should cut off growth from under the graft union as soon as you see it. If you're letting it flower from below the graft that's going to draw energy away from the grafted plant. I would try re-posting on the shrubs forum and see if you get some more answers there.

As to how you tell dead wood, you can take a branch that has no leaves, cut a bit off the top, and see if there is any green wood in the center. If it's all brown through, it's dead. Then you can cut a bit further down and see if it remains brown. With experience you get so you can usually tell if it's dead by the look and feel of the branch. A dead branch will feel stiff and crunchy, not flexible.

    Bookmark   June 1, 2013 at 8:45AM
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I cut them off as soon as I noticed them... Mind you I have a 30/15 ft bed of peonies and the one tree ... So sometimes I don't see the suckers right away. But I still brought the stems inside and let them bloom . Having a 1 yr old and a newborn kinda keeps me out of the garden sometimes.

    Bookmark   June 1, 2013 at 8:51AM
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jayco(5b NY)

Yeah, it would! They sure are pretty and hopefully the tree peony will revive.

    Bookmark   June 1, 2013 at 2:34PM
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How is that tree peony looking now.

Do you happen to be anywhere near Rochester NY?

Here's how a tree peony should be looking like minus the herbaceous shoots which do need to be cut out. It looks like yours could require some gypsum to condition the soil, and some organic material mixed in, and it may actually help re-invigorate the plant so it doesn't look like it is getting worse year after year.

I know this one in the picture needs some cleaning up which did happen right after this picture was taken.

    Bookmark   October 28, 2013 at 9:29PM
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I'm actually in Binghamton... A few weeks back almost all leaves fell from the tree. I'm so sad , I fear that next spring it will really be bad. When I broke some of the branches off they were hollow all the way through. I just don't understand what changed so drastically... Besides the yarrow that has started to take over, and I remove it religiously. Thanks for your response. It's such a beauty I would hate to lose it. Mine has always been tall and slim , never full and wide like your photo.

    Bookmark   October 28, 2013 at 9:37PM
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Binghamton may be a bit far for me to just drive down and check it out.

I think it is a drainage problem, especially if all the leaves are falling off prematurely. Are there still viable red buds?

If so, one option you can do is to graft them onto some herbaceous roots and create your own replacements if there is still viability in the branches. All you will need is.

1. Good grafting knife
2. Grafting tape
3. Heat mat
4. 12 inch plastic zip lock bags
5. play sand/ paper towels/ anything that holds water

You basically need to clean up the branches that have buds/scions, as well as the herbaceous roots. The easiest way to graft is to cut directly through the middle of the nurse root 1-2 inches, then cut the tree peony branch to expose more cambium layer, align the cambium layers of the nurse root and branch, wrap grafting tape, and then heat it up for a few days.

I can get you a video tutorial if you are interested, but there should be tutorials all over the internet.

If you have a big pot, 15 gallon or 25 gallon, sometimes potting up a peony in pro-mix or any good draining soil will save it.

    Bookmark   October 28, 2013 at 11:16PM
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jackie_o(zone 5/6)

She's in zone 5. It's time for the leaves to fall off, not premature.

    Bookmark   October 29, 2013 at 7:31AM
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I have learned from a tree peony grower in my area that the way to tell if tree peonies branches are too old and need to be pruned off is doing as follows: scrape off the bark on an old branch (where there are no buds, at the lower part of the branch) and examine the cambium layer. If it appears brown and dry and dead, then it is time to cut off that branch. If there are young upcoming stems, pruning of the old branches will allow the young stems to grow and take the place of the old branches. Can I ask how old is your tree peony? Usually these old branches are at least 10 years old. When they are old, the buds appear only on the top part of the branch and very few or none on the lower part.

If it is not age, then it is most likely crown rot due to poor drainage like Stevelau discusses above. You should dig the entire plant up to examine the root. Whether there are problems or not with the roots, you can always divide and have more plants.

    Bookmark   October 29, 2013 at 9:19AM
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We have not had a frost yet and leaves at the bottom are fine. The mid-top section has lost leaves and is the part of the tree the has gotten worse over time. In regards to drainage Steve, that is a steep hill.. It's dry as a bone in that bed. I have to water my roses every other day all summer or they crisp.even after a drenching rain my property is never "wet" because of the grade the house is on. They're are buds I'll attach photo. Any idea why stems are hollowed out? The bottom flowered fine and some on top ... There are pictures above.

    Bookmark   October 29, 2013 at 9:28AM
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Photo of buds on top branches... Sparse at best. And I do believe that all the peonies in the bed including the tree have been here quite some time. Although I myself only bought the home 3years ago

    Bookmark   October 29, 2013 at 9:31AM
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It looks like some of your tree peonies branches are too old. The top part look like the younger stems and the lower part are the older stems. If you do not prune off these old branches, they will die off because the old part of the tree can no longer supply food to the top part as a result of aging. As long as there are young stems growing from the base of the tree, then your tree peony is OK. From your info and description, it sounds like some of your tree peony branches are dying off because of old age and there are younger stems coming up at the base of the plant. In this case, you do not need to dig up plant. Just prune off the old branches and let the young stems grow to be your main stem. It will also helps if you remove competing plants away from the peony. There should be no plants growing inside the drip line of the tree. And the suckers should be removed as these will take over your tree peony. This is what I learned from a peony grower near my town. Good luck!

    Bookmark   October 29, 2013 at 5:58PM
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Those 2 towering branches can be taken out which should force more energy into the lower branches, encouraging them to get taller.

If you do that, I would suggest grafting them to herbaceous roots just so you don't end up wasting very good scion wood. Even branches with no buds can be forced into producing a bud to create a new plant. Grafting is easier than most people would think it is, and should be done best in the fall.

If you cannot get a hold of any herbaceous peony roots for the grafting, then I would suggest simply taking those branches and forcing them to root. I've successfully rooted some Japanese Tree peony cuttings. I admit that they aren't that vigorous, but it works if you give them the right conditions.

I think using a broad fork to aerate the soil a bit, adding a few lbs of gypsum & azomite, and a layer of compost should rejuvenate this peony for next year's growth.

I believe this is the species you have right here as the flowers and foliage look identical to yours. This is a Yagumo japanese tree peony. Those top leaves are definitely staying on without any die back so conditioning the soil should help yours regain its health.

    Bookmark   October 29, 2013 at 10:41PM
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Managed to find a picture of it the first year I saw it bloom, terrible angle but you can see a huge difference in the fullness , there were no bare spots. You can see the garden was overtaken by grass and weeds... Maybe the tree preferred it that way ;-) Thank you Steve I have tons of H peonies in that bed so I will try all things you listed. Certainly hope to see better health in coming seasons.

    Bookmark   October 29, 2013 at 11:24PM
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Grafting takes a bit of practice, but it's not that hard to learn especially when you have a lot of nurse roots to work with.

One thing to keep in mind for grafting is that the cambium layer on the nurse root can be up to 1/4 inch in thickness whild the cambium layer on the scion should only be under 1/16 inch so cutting them so that they fit flush is pretty important.

This is my blog on grafting, but I have since improved upon these methods by using actual grafting tape which keeps out the air, and tightens up the graft. I also use 12 inch zip lock bags with a bit of moist sand at the bottom which is much less of a mess than a tray with sand. I also believe that the ideal healing time now is between 2-4 days now under 90F. It's easy to tell when it is healed because the buds will stay swollen, and filled with energy. Sometime they will even grow bigger after grafting.

Here is a link that might be useful: Grafting blog post

    Bookmark   October 29, 2013 at 11:58PM
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So i have gone out to check my tree seeing how spring is just around the corner.. and there are dozens of small branches broken off and laying on the ground .. every year more and more, this happens. Now all thats left is the tallest main trunk .. is there any animal that would be interested in eating or bothering with a tree peony? I do live in the woods.. i have alot of rabbit and dear. Im so sad :( Steve im about ready to give you gas money to come and help me!! :)

    Bookmark   March 9, 2014 at 11:51AM
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I think your problem is from allowing the suckers to grow.
If you cut them all off and cover the trunks of the tree peony about 4" deep (a good mix of soil and compost)and cut down the oldest trunk to the ground your shrub sould be fuller and healthier. If another needs to be cut down, wait until next year, less traumatic to the shrub.
Good luck!

    Bookmark   March 9, 2014 at 12:43PM
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hoovb zone 9 sunset 23

I think your problem is from allowing the suckers to grow.

Yes, the rootstock appears to be taking over.

    Bookmark   March 9, 2014 at 1:21PM
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