Peonies in the Desert?

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Desertpeonies are not really peonies at all; they are in the daisy family (Asteraceae). They don’t exactly resemble what most of us associate with the daisy family because they are what we botanists refer to as “basal asters”. When the daisy family first evolved, they resembled these plants much more than the typical daisy-flowered asters we are probably more familiar with.

There are over 80 species of Acourtia. About 5 are native to the Southwestern United States (California to Texas) and the rest occur in Mesoamerica.

Desertpeonies have very nectar-rich flowers that attract lots of feeders, especially butterflies. They can grow in full sun to bright shade, though part sun is probably ideal for flower development. Moderate to regular water is best, and good drainage is important for some of these species.

Below are the most common species found in Arizona and best lending themselves to growing in the landscape. They are rare in cultivation right now, but we are working to make them regularly available.

Desert Holly
(Acourtia nana)


The weirdest of the desert peonies, this species sometimes called desert holly. It is often found growing beneath trees or shrubs, in little patches or even small colonies. It looks like a dwarf holly plant, and even when it goes dormant, and the leaves are dry, it is recognizable by its holly leaf shape. It grows in the lower to middle deserts. The earliest of our species to bloom, flowers come out in March and last to about June or even later. The flowers are fragrant, the scent reminiscent of violets. Plants will perform as annuals in locations that aren’t ideal, or act as perennials in the right spots. This is the most interesting species, and also the smallest, usually about a foot or slightly more tall, sometimes even only a few inches.

Thurber’s desertpeony
(Acourtia thurberi)


Growing mostly in rocky hillsides, slopes and canyons, gravel and caliche soils, in what is called Sonoran Desert scrub. This species is similar to A. wrightii but with larger leaves. Flowers typically emerge in June and continue into the fall until about October. This species is also the largest-growing species, reaching heights of about 5 feet tall, though often found at about 3 feet.

(Acourtia wrightii)


Growing to about 1.5 to 2 feet tall, this species is the most prevalent in our area. This species is found in the southwestern United States in AZ, NM, NV, TX, UT. It is also native to northern and central Mexico in (Chihuahua, Coahuila, Durango, Nuevo León, San Luis Potosí, Sonora, Zacatecas). Thurber’s desertpeony (A. thurberi) has only 3-6 flowers per head while this species has 8 or more. This species also does not get as large. Blooms June to November or even later.

Katherine Gierlach