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Archive for the ‘Peonies in Art and Poetry’ Category

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!

The Garden in Winter The winter sun that rises near the south Looks coldly on my garden of cold clay; Like some old dotard with a bitter mouth, Shrugs his grey robe to his ears and creeps away. Come down the mountains, April! with young eyes, And roguish daisy-children trooping after, Draw from the sullen clay red peonies, Bring back the sun as a stripling full of laughter! Mary Webb
The Garden in Winter
The winter sun that rises near the south
Looks coldly on my garden of cold clay;
Like some old dotard with a bitter mouth,
Shrugs his grey robe to his ears and creeps away.
Come down the mountains, April! with young eyes,
And roguish daisy-children trooping after,
Draw from the sullen clay red peonies,
Bring back the sun as a stripling full of laughter!
Mary Webb
Peonies This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready    to break my heart      as the sun rises,         as the sun strokes them with his old, buttery fingers and they open--    pools of lace,       white and pink--        and all day the black ants climb over them, boring their deep and mysterious holes     into the curls,       craving the sweet sap,         taking it away to their dark, underground cities--    and all day       under the shifty wind,        as in a dance to the great wedding, the flowers bend their bright bodies,    and tip their fragrance to the air,      and rise,        their red stems holding all that dampness and recklessness     gladly and lightly,       and there it is again--         beauty the brave, the exemplary, blazing open.     Do you love this world?       Do you cherish your humble and silky life?        Do you adore the green grass, with its terror beneath? Do you also hurry, half-dressed and barefoot, into the garden,    and softly,       and exclaiming of their dearness,        fill your arms with the white and pink flowers, with their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling,     their eagerness       to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are         nothing, forever?  Mary Oliver
Peonies
This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready
to break my heart
as the sun rises,
as the sun strokes them with his old, buttery fingers
and they open–
pools of lace,
white and pink–
and all day the black ants climb over them,
boring their deep and mysterious holes
into the curls,
craving the sweet sap,
taking it away
to their dark, underground cities–
and all day
under the shifty wind,
as in a dance to the great wedding,
the flowers bend their bright bodies,
and tip their fragrance to the air,
and rise,
their red stems holding
all that dampness and recklessness
gladly and lightly,
and there it is again–
beauty the brave, the exemplary,
blazing open.
Do you love this world?
Do you cherish your humble and silky life?
Do you adore the green grass, with its terror beneath?
Do you also hurry, half-dressed and barefoot, into the garden,
and softly,
and exclaiming of their dearness,
fill your arms with the white and pink flowers,
with their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling,
their eagerness
to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are
nothing, forever?
        Mary Oliver     
By the Peonies The peonies bloom, white and pink. And inside each, as in a fragrant bowl, A swarm of tiny beetles have their conversation, For the flower is given to them as their home. Mother stands by the peony bed, Reaches for one bloom, opens its petals, And looks for a long time into peony lands, Where one short instant equals a whole year. Then lets the flower go. And what she thinks She repeats aloud to the children and herself. The wind sways the green leaves gently And speckles of light flick across their faces. The charms of the ordinariness soothe the threat of anxiety. Czeslaw Milosz
By the Peonies
The peonies bloom, white and pink.
And inside each, as in a fragrant bowl,
A swarm of tiny beetles have their conversation,
For the flower is given to them as their home.
Mother stands by the peony bed,
Reaches for one bloom, opens its petals,
And looks for a long time into peony lands,
Where one short instant equals a whole year.
Then lets the flower go. And what she thinks
She repeats aloud to the children and herself.
The wind sways the green leaves gently
And speckles of light flick across their faces.
The charms of the ordinariness soothe the threat of anxiety.
Czeslaw Milosz
Today If ever there were a spring day so perfect, so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze that it made you want to throw open all the windows in the house and unlatch the door to the canary's cage, indeed, rip the little door from its jamb, a day when the cool brick paths and the garden bursting with peonies seemed so etched in sunlight that you felt like taking a hammer to the glass paperweight on the living room end table, releasing the inhabitants from their snow-covered cottage so they could walk out, holding hands and squinting into this larger dome of blue and white, well, today is just that kind of day. Billy Collins
Today
If ever there were a spring day so perfect,
so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze
that it made you want to throw
open all the windows in the house
and unlatch the door to the canary’s cage,
indeed, rip the little door from its jamb,
a day when the cool brick paths
and the garden bursting with peonies
seemed so etched in sunlight
that you felt like taking
a hammer to the glass paperweight
on the living room end table,
releasing the inhabitants
from their snow-covered cottage
so they could walk out,
holding hands and squinting
into this larger dome of blue and white,
well, today is just that kind of day.
Billy Collins
Peonies at Dusk White peonies blooming along the porch send out light while the rest of the yard grows dim. Outrageous flowers as big as human heads! They’re staggered by their own luxuriance: I had to prop them up with stakes and twine. The moist air intensifies their scent, and the moon moves around the barn to find out what it’s coming from. In the darkening June evening I draw a blossom near, and bending close search it as a woman searches a loved one’s face. Jane Kenyon
Peonies at Dusk
White peonies blooming along the porch
send out light
while the rest of the yard grows dim.
Outrageous flowers as big as human
heads! They’re staggered
by their own luxuriance: I had
to prop them up with stakes and twine.
The moist air intensifies their scent,
and the moon moves around the barn
to find out what it’s coming from.
In the darkening June evening
I draw a blossom near, and bending close
search it as a woman searches
a loved one’s face.
Jane Kenyon
Peonies Heart-transplants my friend handed me: four of her own peony bushes in their fall disguise, the arteries of truncated, dead wood protruding from clumps of soil fine-veined with worms. "Better get them in before the frost." And so I did, forgetting them until their June explosion when it seemed at once they’d fallen in love, had grown two dozen pink hearts each. Extravagance, exaggeration, each one a girl on her first date, excess perfume, her dress too ruffled, the words he spoke to her too sweet— but he was young; he meant it all. And when they could not bear the pretty weight of so much heart, I snipped their dew-sopped blooms; stuffed them in vases in every room like tissue-boxes already teary with self-pity. Mary Jo Salter
Peonies
Heart-transplants my friend handed me:
four of her own peony bushes
in their fall disguise, the arteries
of truncated, dead wood protruding
from clumps of soil fine-veined with worms.
“Better get them in before the frost.”
And so I did, forgetting them
until their June explosion when
it seemed at once they’d fallen in love,
had grown two dozen pink hearts each.
Extravagance, exaggeration,
each one a girl on her first date,
excess perfume, her dress too ruffled,
the words he spoke to her too sweet—
but he was young; he meant it all.
And when they could not bear the pretty
weight of so much heart, I snipped
their dew-sopped blooms; stuffed them in vases
in every room like tissue-boxes
already teary with self-pity.
Mary Jo Salter

catalog cutting collection

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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.

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Cascading bridal bouquets with herbaceous peonies, spirea, roses, snapdragon and limonium.

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Detail of centerpiece with tree peonies, phlox, iris, asparagus fern.

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A June basket with herbaceous peonies and foxglove.

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A tall rustic vase of herbaceous peonies, roses, alstroemeria, aster, larkspur.
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Herbaceous peony, roses, larkspur form the basis of this fragrant basket.
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A harmony of herbaceous peony, foxglove, bleeding heart, larkspur, phlox, iris and honeysuckle.

Italian rustic garland with herbaceous peony, roses and snapdragons set the scene for a spring wedding.

Italian rustic garland with herbaceous peony, roses and snapdragons set the scene for a spring wedding.

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The following selection of Japanese poems, or haiku all date from the Edo period (1603-1868). During this period, painters and poets were held in high regard and enjoyed the patronage of the wealthy elite. Tree peonies had an important role in classical Japanese art and aesthetics. As in China, when depicted in art, they often represented wealth and status. They could also be cast in a more sensual way, standing in paintings and poetry for female beauty and allure. However, peonies are not always used as metaphors, in some of these poems the flower itself is the muse.

About to bloom,
And exhale a rainbow,
The peony!
– Buson

When the peonies bloomed, It seemed as though were No flowers around them. Kiitsu

When the peonies bloomed,
It seemed as though were
No flowers around them.
– Kiitsu

The stamens and pistil Of the peony gush out Into the sunlight. Taigi

The stamens and pistil
Of the peony gush out
Into the sunlight.
– Taigi

The peonies do not allow The rain-clouds a hundred leagues round To approach them. Buson

The peonies do not allow
The rain-clouds a hundred leagues round
To approach them.
– Buson

In the stillness, Between the arrival of guests, The peonies. Buson

In the stillness,
Between the arrival of guests,
The peonies.
– Buson

Dusk on the flower Of the white peony, That embraces the moon. Gyodai

Dusk on the flower
Of the white peony,
That embraces the moon.
– Gyodai

The peony
Made him measure it
With his fan.
– Issa

Dear, dear, What a fat, happy face it has, This peony! Issa

Dear, dear,
What a fat, happy face it has,
This peony!
– Issa

The peonies have fallen, We parted Without regret. Hokushi

The peonies have fallen,
We parted
Without regret.
– Hokushi

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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.

Courtesan from Ogiya Holding Peony, from the series Flower Contest of Courtesans by Seichotei Sencho, cira 1830.

Courtesan from Ogiya Holding Peony, from the series Flower Contest of Courtesans by Seichotei Sencho, cira 1830.

Peacock and Peony, from the series Seven Bird-and-Flower Prints for the Fuyôren of Kanuma in Shimotsuke Province by Kubo Shunman, Edo period, circa 1810

Peacock and Peony, from the series Seven Bird-and-Flower Prints for the Fuyôren of Kanuma in Shimotsuke Province by Kubo Shunman, Edo period, circa 1810

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Peony, by Kubo Shunman. This style of woodblock print was known as surimono. They were privately commissioned works intended to be distributed to a small audience of friends, colleagues or like-minded members of a “poetry circle.”

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.

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 Dragon and Peony Kimono, from the series Six Selected Famous Actors by Toyohara Kunichika 1873. This short series is one of Kunichika’s finest from the 1870’s. Each actor is dressed in a kimono of different design and takes the part of an onnagata in role - portraits of male actors in female roles. Notable here is Kunichika’s use of the very new western-style umbrella for this series. Kunichika’s relationship to the post-revolution government was at times equivocal. He was sometimes openly hostile or satirical of the rapid westernisation of Japan and at others was more accepting of its unusual and inevitable innovations.

Dragon and Peony Kimono, from the series Six Selected Famous Actors by Toyohara Kunichika 1873.

This is a 20th century Uchikake or wedding kimono.

This is a 20th century uchikake or silk wedding kimono.

Contempory chiyogami paper from Osaka, Japan.

Contemporary chiyogami paper from Osaka, Japan.

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.

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Peonies Botan zu fusuma  by Kano Sanraku, 17th century, screen with gold-leaf background.

Ceramic and Metal Ware

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19th painted ceramic vase in the Arita style.

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This 19th century bronze vase is inlaid with silver and copper.

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This early 20th century vase is made of solid silver.

Netsuke 根付

These miniature carvings are often of ivory and originally served as sash fasteners for pouches and containers.

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This is an example of Kagami netsuke, or netsuke with metal inlay which dates from the late 19th century.

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Peony Netsuke, by Kohosai, mid-19th century

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 .

Tree peonies are common motifs in Japanese tattoos.

Tree peonies are common motifs in Japanese tattoos.

Imagine showing this beauty off at your next garden club meeting!

Imagine showing this beauty off at your next garden club meeting!

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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.

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Some accounts credit the great Buddhist monk and scholar Kōbō-Daishi with initially introducing tree peonies 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.

Peonies at Hyakken an 1866 woodblock print by Utagawa Shigenobu depicts the tree peonies at a famous public garden in Tokyo.

Peonies at Hyakken – this 1866 woodblock print by Utagawa Shigenobu depicts the tree peonies at a famous public garden in Tokyo.

peonies in tokyo circa 1910

Viewing the tree peonies in Tokyo. Hand-colored photograph, circa 1910.

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.

The Yokohama Nursery was know for its large selection of tree peonies, irises and lilies. This nursery exported to the United States from the early 1900s until the eve of World War 2.

The Yokohama Nursery was know for its large selection of tree peonies, irises and lilies. This nursery exported to the United States from the early 1900s until the eve of World War 2.

A close-up from a beautifully printed Yokohama Nursery catalog, circa 1920. The varieties shown are, from left to right, "Peak of Mt. Fuji" 富士の峰 Fuji-no-mime "Peak of Mt. Fuji" and "Kasane Lion" 重ね獅子 Kasane-jishi.

A close-up from a beautifully printed Yokohama Nursery catalog, circa 1920. The varieties shown are, from left to right, “Peak of Mt. Fuji” 富士の峰 Fuji-no-mime “Peak of Mt. Fuji” and “Kasane Lion” 重ね獅子 Kasane-jishi.

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.

'Eternal Camellias' Yachiyo tsubaki 八千代椿 is a very reliable grower and bloomer.

Eternal CamelliasYachiyo tsubaki 八千代椿 is a very reliable grower and bloomer.

'Black Dragon Brocade' Kokuryu nisjiki is a very dark and highly prized cultivar.

Black Dragon BrocadeKokuryu nisjiki is a very dark and highly prized cultivar.

'Seven Gods of Good Fortune' Shin Shichifukujin is one of our most vibrant dark pink Japanese tree peonies.

Seven Gods of Good FortuneShin Shichifukujin is one of our most vibrant dark pink Japanese tree peonies.

'The Sun' Taiyo this is perhaps the brightest red tree peony in our entire collection.

The SunTaiyo this is perhaps the brightest red tree peony in our entire collection.

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.

This plant well illustrates the tendency of Japanese tree peonies to grow in a upright, and not bushy, manner.

This plant well illustrates the tendency of Japanese tree peonies to grow in a upright, and not bushy, manner.

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.

'King of Flower' 花王 Kao is a rare Japanese tree peony which blooms in a fully double form.

King of Flowers‘ 花王 Kao is a rare Japanese tree peony which blooms in a fully double form.

'Monitor of the Palace at Sunrise' Fusotsukasa is another double form Japanese tree peony.

‘Monitor of the Palace at Sunrise’ Fusotsukasa is another double form Japanese tree peony.

'White Jade Lion' 白玉獅子 Hakuojishi is a variety which is said to bloom in the 'lion's main' form.

‘White Jade Lion’ 白玉獅子 Hakuojishi is a variety which is said to bloom in the ‘lion’s main’ form.

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.

A bed of Japanese tree peonies in full bloom at Cricket Hill Garden.

A bed of Japanese tree peonies in full bloom at Cricket Hill Garden.

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 are protected by straw mats in Japan. This photo show a tree peony blooming in a Tokyo park in December!

Winter blooming tree peonies are protected by straw mats in Japan. This photo show a tree peony blooming in a Tokyo park in December!

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.

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The once exception is the early blooming Paeonia japonica.

As in China, herbaceous peonies are not held in quite as high esteem as tree peonies in Japan.

In America, anemone form herbaceous peonies are often referred to as 'Japanese' form, most likely because the first herbaceous peonies to flower in this form were initially imported from Japan.

In America, anemone form herbaceous peonies are often referred to as ‘Japanese’ form, most likely because the first herbaceous peonies to flower in this form were initially imported from Japan.

A future blog post will deal with the cultural significance of tree peonies in Japan and their depiction in Japanese visual art.

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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.

Hong Wenzhan 红文湛 Drunk with the Flowers 与花同醉

Bai Lei 白磊 A Twist of Red 一捻红

Li Lingyun 李凌云 Ode to the National Flower 国花颂

Wei Chuanyi 魏传义 Grey of Frost 露华浓

Li Rongguang 李荣光 Happiness to Glory 欣欣向荣

Ji Xinmin 齐辛民 Peonies 牡丹

Kou Heng 寇衡 Music of Spring 春韵

Tian Boan 田博庵 Strong Sense of Spring 春意浓

Tan Difei 谭涤非 Cat and Butterflies/ a Portrait of Age 耄耋图

Xu Ronghong 徐若鸿 Peonies and Two Cranes 牡丹双鹤图

Zhu Dao 祝焘 The Fist Thing to Catch the Eye 独占人间第一看

Zhang Xiwu 张锡武 Gorgeous Beauty 艳冠群芳

Gu Bingxin 顾炳鑫 Peony Nymph 牡丹仙子

Wang Xiqi 王锡麒 Admiring the Peony 赏花图

Zhang Jingwu 张经武 Lantian Jade 蓝田玉

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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)

Tree Peonies

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)

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