We have written before on peony related poetry from China and Japan. In English language poetry, peonies do not have the same symbolism that they do in for east Asian writers. In traditional Chinese and Japanese art, peonies broadly represent both female beauty, as well as wealth and status. Western poets use peony blossoms to evoke spring, ephemeral beauty and fleeting infatuation. During these dreary days of winter, we find these the following poems to be an effective tonic against the pervading chill. Enjoy!
Archive for the ‘Peonies in Art and Poetry’ Category
Anyone who grows peonies, knows all to well the temptation to cut a perfect blossom for use in a floral arrangement. Indeed, some varieties of tree and herbaceous peonies with particularly large flowers are best used as cut flowers. All of us growing these amazing flowers do like to see them up close, as cut flowers, where they can be studied and enjoyed.
Kasha Furman, co-founder of Cricket Hill Garden, has used a wide variety of peony blossoms cut from our gardens. Though now retired from the wedding flower business, there was a time in the 1990s, when she would arrange the flowers for up to twenty weddings a season. Whenever possible she would use peonies.
Tree peonies are used with short green stems, usually no more than 6″, never cutting past into the plant’s woody stems. Pick while the bud is still closed, but soft. The flower will open up to display a dazzling bloom. Herbaceous peonies, with their generous length of stems, are used in a variety of arrangements, from bridal bouquets to garlands. These are also cut before being fully open, though soft buds guarantee that they will open for your event. To avoid ants at your picnic, take the freshly cut herbaceous peony bud and blooms and plunge in bucket cold water, shaking the blossoms. Do this several times to wash off the flowers before you begin to arrange them. Tree peonies do not attract ants and do not need this treatment. Tree peonies, with sort stems which usually do not exceed 5” could only be used for shorter centerpieces.
As we enter winter and the predominant color of the garden is shades of gold and brown, we hope that these images of Kasha’s wedding flowers will brighten your day.
As in China, tree peonies are commonly depicted in traditional Japanese art. In Japan, tree peonies not only represent feminine beauty, but also wealth and nobility of spirit. We have assembled a selection of images demonstrating how the tree peony is used as a common motif across a range of traditional Japanese art forms; from woodblock prints to tattoos. Enjoy!
Woodblock Prints 木版画 moku hanga and other prints
The most famous genre of this art form is ukiyo-e 浮世絵 literally “pictures of the floating world” which began in the 1600s. This sophisticated form of woodblock printing developed in Edo or Tokyo and was patronized by a growing middle class. The style which developed for woodblock prints also spread to other forms of printing including silk screening for fabric and paper.
The following prints come from series Peonies by Tanigami Konan for the Imperial Exhibition of 1917 in Tokyo. Each depicts a famous named tree peony variety of the time. Unfortunately, in the source I found, they are not labeled.
Screens 屏風 Byōbu
This art form, like many others in Japan, originated in China. In the 18th century screens became popular in residences of samurai where they conveyed high rank and demonstrated wealth and power.
Ceramic and Metal Ware
These miniature carvings are often of ivory and originally served as sash fasteners for pouches and containers.
Body Art 入れ墨 Irezumi
For much of Japanese history, tattooing was taboo in Japan, and reserved as a punishment for criminals. However, in 18th century Edo, as Tokyo, was then known, the development of sophisticated woodblock printing techniques paralleled the rise of a tattoo culture. Marginalized members of society favored tattoos as did the Yakuza, or mafia. In the mid-19th century there was again a government crackdown against tattooing of Japanese citizens. It was during this time that Japan began large scale trade with Western powers. Ironically, during this period Japanese tattoo art flourished, the clients being foreign sailors. It was not until after World War Two that tattooing was legalized in Japan. Today it is still viewed as somewhat taboo. The designs used are simplified adaptations of woodblock print .
At Cricket Hill Garden, we have long specialized in Chinese tree peonies. We have a preference for these because overall we find Chinese tree peonies to be more diverse in form, color and fragrance than their Japanese cousins. That said, any gardener with an interest in tree peonies cannot help but admire the open flower forms, upright growth habit and vibrant colors which characterize Japanese tree peonies.
There is no species of tree peony native to Japan. Historians date the arrival of the tree peonies (known as Botan in Japanese) in Japan to the 8th century CE. Historians agree that it was Buddhist monks, whether Chinese or Japanese is a matter of dispute, that were responsible for transporting tree peonies to Japan. In this context, tree peonies were not seen as an ornamental garden plant, but rather as an important medicinal plant. Tree peonies were part of the great flow of goods and ideas from China to Japan.
Over the next few hundred years, tree peonies were planted in temple and court gardens as ornamental plants, but it was not until the Edo period (1603 to 1868) that their cultivation became widespread. The advent of grafting as the main propagation technique during this period is largely responsible for the rapid spread of tree peony cultivation. The main center of cultivation and propagation became the cities of Tokyo and Kyoto as well as the western coastal prefectures of Niigata and Shimane.
As in China, tree peonies in Japan carry significant cultural symbolism. When depicted in visual art and poetry, tree peonies in Japan represent good fortune as well as a righteous and noble spirit.
Beginning in the mid-19th century, Japanese tree peonies began to appear in western European botanical gardens. By the 1890s, several large nurseries based in Japan were exporting large quantities of tree peonies to both Europe and the United States.
A little aside: For those who think that tree peonies are expensive, consider that a vintage catalog from Yokohama nursery costs $5,500 from a rare book dealer. Real Japanese tree peonies, priced on our website starting at $89 are cheap by comparison!
From their first introduction into the United States over one hundred years ago, there has been much confusion amongst nursery professionals and collectors regarding the correct identification of Japanese tree peonies. In his 1962 book, The Peonies, the grower John C. Wister gave vent to this frustration:
“Our troubles [in correctly identifying Japanese tree peony cultivars] have been by the carelessness or unscrupulousness of some Japanese nurseryman. The principle exporters of the 1910-1925 era would sell a collection of fifty varieties with fifty different labels and all but two or three plants would prove identical. The same firm would send fifty plants of one special white variety and the flowers would bloom pink, scarlet, and purple.”
Unfortunately, the situation has not improved much since, imported Japanese tree peonies continue to be chronically mislabeled. True to name or not, Japanese tree peonies were important to the tree peony hybridzation done by breeders such as Prof. Arthur Saunders and Nassos Daphnis. These great hybridizers crossed Japanese tree peonies with the species tree peony P. lutea to create the beautiful yellow and apricot tree peonies such as High Noon and Marchioness.
Some cultivars of Japanese tree peonies developed in the 19th century are still in commerce today. As more propagation of Japanese tree peonies is done in the United States the issue of mislabeling has become less severe. At Cricket Hill Garden we guarantee that all of the Japanese tree peonies we sell are true to name. Below are some of our favorite Japanese tree peony cultivars.
In both flower form and growth habit, Japanese tree peonies tend to share a number of morphological traits. This uniformity is probably a result of rather limited genetic heritage of Japanese tree peonies as well as the aesthetic decision made by Japanese peony growers. The shared characteristics of Japanese tree peonies tend to be: large blooms, 8-12” in diameter, upward facing, open semi-double flower forms, and though often less fragrant than Chinese tree peonies, the colors are extremely vibrant. Most shrubs reach 4′ tall and wide at maturity. Japanese tree peonies are more upright and less bushy than Chinese counterparts. The leaves are deeply dissected and many have a purplish green tint.
There are some notable exceptions to the rule that most Japanese tree peonies are semi-double. A few varieties are fine doubles while there is a whole subset of semi-double flowers which is know as jishi or lion form. There flowers are said to have the look of the tousled, unkempt main of a lion.
In our experience, the majority of Japanese tree peonies are mid-season blooming, flowering after our Chinese tree peonies but before the lutea hybrids. The peak bloom for Japanese tree peonies at Cricket Hill Garden is usually around June 1st.
There is an interesting subsection of Japanese tree peonies known as Kan Botan or ‘Winter Blooming’ tree peonies. This type of tree peony blooms in the spring, and then, depending on the variety, re-blooms from November to January. The flowers in the winter are much smaller and the plant only produces a few leaves. These unique cultivars are said to date to the 1700s.
Winter Blooming tree peonies seems to have been developed to suit the unique climates of certain areas of Japan. We do not know of any growers who have successfully cultivated Kan Botan here in the United States.
In the 20th century, Japanese plant hybridizers such as Toichi Itoh were the first to successfully cross a tree peony with a herbaceous peony, creating a third type of peony known as an intersectional peonies.
Lastly a word on herbaceous peonies. The vast majority of herbaceous peonies are also not native to Japan.
As in China, herbaceous peonies are not held in quite as high esteem as tree peonies in Japan.
A future blog post will deal with the cultural significance of tree peonies in Japan and their depiction in Japanese visual art.
Chinese gardeners have been growing tree peonies for over a thousand years, so have Chinese painters been using them as inspiration for centuries. Traditionally these paintings were executed in water colors on rice paper in what is known as the “national-style painting” (guohua). Chinese painters always took some artistic license in depicting peonies; painting fantastical blue peonies or tree peonies with many different colored flowers on a single branch. From the Song to the Qing dynasties, a basic style prevailed in peony paintings. As modern China began to emerge from the war and revolution of the 20th century, artists pushed traditional artistic styles; lines became blurred and less uniform. The unbounded look executed by these modern artists are a expression cultural continuity which in which the “national-style painting” continued to depict tree peonies, the “national flower.” Since China’s economic resurgence in the 1980s, painters continued to explore new styles, but also have harkened back to more traditional motifs. If history serves as any guide, its likely that tree peonies with their luscious, silken flowers will continue to enchant artists as well as gardeners in both China and the rest of the world for centuries to come.
In China, tree peonies have been objects of aesthetic fascination since at least the Sui Dynasty (589-618 CE). Painters and poets have worked to capture the ephemeral beauty of the blossoms. Tree peonies are also used to evoke female nature, love, prosperity and status. To help lighten the cold, dark days of winter, we find ourselves returning to some of our favorite peony poems of Chinese antiquity. Enjoy!
Spring River Flowers Moon Night
The river is smooth and calm this evening,
The peony flowers bloom.
The moon floats on the current.
The tide carries the stars.
— Qian Qi (Tang Dyanasty)
Visit to the Hermit Chui
Moss covered paths between scarlet peonies,
Pale jade mountains fill your rustic windows.
I envy you, drunk with flowers;
Butterflies swirling in your dreams.
— Qian Qi (Tang Dynasty)
The Blossoms of Luoyang
My lover is like the tree peony of Luoyang,
I, unworthy, like the common willows of Wu Chang.
Both places love the spring wind.
When shall we hold each others hands again?
Incessant the buzzing of insects beyond the orchard curtain
The moom flings slanting shadows from the pepper tree across the courtyard.
Pity the girl of the flowery house, who is not equal to the blossoms of Luoyang.
— Ting Liunang (Tang Dynasty)
Peonies at Jixing Temple
Springtime radiance, gradually, gradually where does it go?
Again before a wine jar, we take up a goblet.
All day we’ve questioned the flowers, but the flowers do not speak.
For whom do they shed their petals and leaves, for whom do they bloom?
–Emperor Yang (Sui Dynasty)
Embroidered garden, everywhere there, fettered with famous flowers;
My steps are blocked by the red tiers of budding crimson
I ponder on your favors, which resemble the colors of springtime-
Upon tree peony branches, indeed their glory’s profuse.
–Lu Shusheng (Ming Dynasty)
The Red Peony
Voluptuous green so leisurely and tranquil
and robe of red now light, now dark
heart of the flower sadness about to break
but how could we know this from such spring colors.
–Wang Wei (Tang Dynasty)
Drinking with Friends Amongst the Blooming Peonies
We had a drinking party to admire the peonies.
I drank cup after cup till I was drunk.
Then to my shame I heard the flowers whisper,
“What are we doing, blooming for these old alcoholics?”
–Ling Huchu (Tang Dynasty)
Matching Premier Linghu’s “Taking Leave of the Peonies”
In my official mansion, a balustrade of flowers.
But when it’s time for them to bloom, I’m always away from home!
Do not say the Twin Capitals are not far distant parted.
The springtime brilliance beyond my gate is the very abyss of Heaven.
–Liu Yushi (Tang Dynasty)