Archive for the ‘Peonies in Art and Poetry’ Category

In 1964 the Chinese post office printed a beautiful set of stamps which showcased some classical varieties of tree peonies. Just a few short years later Chairman Mao unleashed the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution on the Chinese people and such a celebration of traditional art and culture became impossible. How some the largest tree peony gardens managed to escape the ravages of ‘class struggle’  and the Red Guards is a fascinating story for another blog post.

When we first began to import tree peonies from China in the late 1980s these stamps were the most definitive reference we could find as a guide for choosing varieties. At the time there were no good English language sources on Chinese tree peonies. We even used the images from these stamps in our first illustrated catalog in 1993.

In the two decades since, we have test grown most of the classical varieties illustrated in the stamp series. While they have been celebrated for hundreds of years for their undeniable beauty we have found some of them fickle and relatively weak growers. Some of the more recently developed varieties make for more vigorous and gratifying garden specimens. Also, certain prized colors like yellow are idealized in in these stamps, while in reality the flower is quite paler in color.

Many varieties of Chinese tree peonies, including those featured in this stamp series  have been continuously cultivated for centuries. We help to continue this great and worthy tradition by selling only true to name varieties. Moreover, we try to explain the stories behind the names of individual cultivars. While a name adds nothing to the beauty of beholding a tree peony in bloom, to those interested, understanding it’s significance lends another layer of enjoyment in cultivating peonies. They are truly horti(cultural) artifacts.

Enjoy these beautiful images and the contrast between the artists renditions and the pictures taken in our garden. When available, we have tried to give some background information regarding the names of these cultivars. This research is a work in progress and any additional information which readers may be able to provide would be greatly appreciated.

Twin Beauty 二喬 er qiao

Twin Beauty is named after the Qiao sister in the historical epic, Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The two beautiful sisters were said to be “beauties whose faces would make fish forget to swim or birds to fly, abash the very blossoms and outshine the moon.” The warlord General Cao Cao coveted their affection and sought to capture them in order to place them in his Bronze Bird Tower; this intrigue was one of the main causes of the Battle of the Red Cliffs in 208-09 CE.

We have found this classical variety to be a fine addition to our peony collection. Depending on soil and fertilization conditions, flowers may bloom variegated, all pink or all red. We currently have Twin Beauty in stock for fall 2011 shipping (2/3 yr. old tree peony $89, 3/4 yr. old tree peony $125)

An exceptional interesting flower which is truly green. It is extremely slow to become established and flower; our specimen took over 10 years before it bloomed well.  While ‘Pea Green’ is unique, its ornamental appeal is debatable. A few years ago we had a cut flower in the refrigerator and an employee mistook it for a head of lettuce.

‘Pea Green’ in bloom at Cricket Hill Garden

Gejin’s Purple 葛巾紫 ge jin zi

In a Chinese folk story the peony spirit Gejin takes the  form of a beautiful women in order to wed a scholar who was enchanted by the tree peonies of Heze. When the husband became aware that his wife was an apparition, she and their children vanished. In the place of where the children had been, two peonies grew, one was purple and was named Gejin’s Purple.

For many years we erroneously translated this variety as “Purple Kudzu Scarf.” This is the literal translation of the three Chinese characters “ge jin zi,” but totally misses the true meaning of those characters.

‘Gejin’s Purple’ has always been a favorite with visitors at Cricket Hill.

Hu’s Red 胡紅 hu hong

This variety is presumably named after the Hu family which first identified it in their garden.

‘Hu’s Red’ at Cricket Hill

Imperial Yellow Robes 御衣黃 yu yi huang

Named for the yellow robes which only the emperor of China was permitted to wear. We were very excited to find a source for this variety in the late 1980s. Unfortunately it never bloomed as advertised, the specimens we have in our garden always bloom pink. Our sources in China say that even there it is a very rare variety and unscrupulous growers pass off ‘fake’ ‘Imperial Yellow Robes’ on unsuspecting buyers. The search for the true Imperial Yellow Robes continues!

Shining Night at Kun Shan 崑山夜光 Kun Shan Ye Guang

Kunshan is an ancient city in eastern China near Suzhou which has since the 1980s developed into a booming (and heavily polluted) industrial center.

Lan Tian Jade 藍田玉 lan tian yu

Named after a prized type of jade found in western Shanxi province.

‘Lan Tian Jade’ in bloom at Peony Heaven

Ruby Wrapped in Ice 冰罩紅石 bing zhao hong shi

Gold Flecked Chinese Ink 墨撒金 mo sa jin

‘Gold Flecks in Chinese Ink’ blooming in our garden.

Daoist Stove Filled with Pills of Immortality 盛丹爈 sheng dan lv

‘Daoist Stove Filled with Pills of Immortality’ blooming at Peony Heaven. The name alone makes this a desirable cultivar.

Wei’s Purple 魏紫 wei zi

‘Wei’s Purple’ is one of the oldest continuously cultivated varieties. It was first recorded almost 1000 years ago.

Yao’s Yellow 姚黃 yao huang

‘Yao’s Yellow’ is also a truly antique variety. 

However we have found it to be very slow growing, with the flower retaining their very pale yellow cast for a day or so before fading to white. For collectors who desire a true yellow tree peony, one of the Saunder’s hybrids like Age of Gold is a better choice.

Zhao’s Pink 趙粉 zhao fen

‘Zhao’s Pink’ is also cultivated for its roots, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine.

Cinnabar Ramparts 硃砂壘 zhu sha lei

‘Cinnabar Ramparts’ in bloom at Cricket Hill Garden.

Intoxicated Immortal 醉仙挑 zui xian tao.

We have never seen this wonderfully named variety offered for sale. Though we and many, many other have surely felt like an ‘intoxicated immortal’ upon viewing a garden of tree peonies in full bloom.

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‘Dancing Black Lion’ 舞青猊 wu qing ni

The following watercolor paintings are part of series by Zou Yigui 鄒一桂 (1686–1772), a famed court painter of the Qing Dynasty. The style is a unique blend of traditional Chinese and western style  botanical illustration.  This mixing of traditions lends the flower greater dimension, but also gives it a somewhat stilted quality.  Earlier classical Chinese paintings of tree peonies are less detailed, but more fluid in their representation.

The two large red stamps which appear on the upper portions of the paintings are the imperial seals of the Emperors Qianlong and Jiaqing. As part of the prized imperial collection of the Qing dynasty, these paintings now reside in the National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan.

These images help to demonstrate the extraordinarily long time that tree peonies have captivated emperors, painters and gardeners. These paintings are almost 250 years old, some of the varieties shown have been grown for over 1000 years, and yet they still inspire us and so many others.

Some of the varieties, like ‘Yao’s Yellow’ and ‘Wei’s Purple’ depicted in this series of paintings are mentioned in the Record of the Tree Peonies of Luoyang by the Song dynasty literati Ouyang xiu (1007-1072 CE).

Yao’s Yellow 姚黃 yao huang

‘Wei’s Purple’ 魏紫 wei zi

In Record of the Tree Peonies of Luoyang, Ouyang Xiu relates that: “People call the tree peony the ‘king of flowers’. Now if Yao’s Yellow can indeed be considered the king, then Wei’s Purple is the queen.”

We have specimens of Wei’s Purple and Yao’s Yellow in our collection at Cricket Hill Garden. It is truly astonishing to think that the flowers we are mesmerized by each spring are the exact clones of those which Ouyang xiu wrote about 1000 years ago.  Beautiful as these two very famous varieties are, we have decided not to sell or propagate them because they have proven to be a bit fickle and slow growing. We and our customers have found better success in growing more recently developed, better performing cultivars.

For instance, ‘Yao’s Yellow’ is in reality nowhere near the color depicted in this painting.  In actuality it is a pale yellow which quickly fades to white. It is also slow and rather meager in its flowers. Collectors seeking a true yellow tree peony for their garden will have more success in one of the American hybrids like Age of Gold.

Number One Scholar’s Red 狀元紅 zhuang yuan hong

Number One Scholar’s Red‘ is named for the zhuang yuan, or highest honor in the Chinese Imperial civil service examination. For members of the gentry class of ancient China, attainment of this most exalted rank was the ultimate demonstration of mental acuity and moral rectitude. The 12th century chronicler of peonies Lu Yu speculated that this already old variety had acquired it’s named either because “it transcends all other flowers” or because “under the old system, the top candidate in the imperial examination was awarded a madder-plant colored robe and so this flower was named because of that color.”

We do sell a number of classical varieties of Chinese tree peonies including Number One Scholars Red. Other heirloom varieties are Luoyang Red, Black Dragon Holds a Splendid Flower, Twin Beauty, Phoenix White, Gold Sand in a Black Ocean and Capital Red. We have found these varieties to do very well as garden specimens.

Many of the varieties in this series of paintings appear to have fallen out of production since we have never seen them for sale anywhere.  We can only wonder what they really looked like…….

‘Auspicious Dewy Cicada’ 瑞露蟬 rui lu chan

‘Embroidered Red Robes’ 繡衣紅 xiu yi hong

‘Drunken Jade Circle’ 醉玉還 zui yu huan

‘Purple Robe and Golden Seal’ 紫袍金印 zi pao jin yin

‘Heavenly Purple’ 朝天紫 chao tian zi

We have not been able to translate the names of these last three tree peonies. A little assistance from some of the China scholars among the blog’s readers would be greatly appreciated!




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The time for peony blooms has passed for this season. As we survey our garden of green shrubs, and fight to find room for a dozen more tomato plants here and a hill of squash there, even we occasionally need to be reminded of why we have devoted our land, labor and love to peonies. One way we do this is by reflecting on the Chinese experience and interactions with tree peonies. Long before the tulip mania of 17th century Holland, there was peony mania in China. By the Tang dynasty (8-12th centuries CE) tree peonies were well established in the Chinese cultural esthetic as symbols of female beauty, and love and well as wealth and status. By the Song dynasty, tree peonies had become a favorite muse of Chinese painters. Today they are still one of the classical subjects.

Anonymous: Peonies and Cat, Song dynasty (12th Century).

Yun Shouping, Peonies. Song Dynasty (12th Century)

Ting Yin (1470-1523) Lady with a Peony.

This Ming dynasty painting of two beauties brings to mind a Tang dynasty poem of unknown authorship entitled Teasing.

wet with dew
like peals
the real thing.

A pretty girl
breaking one off
strolls out to the front courtyard
and smiles.
asking her lover
‘is the flower
prettier than my face?’

The lover
meaning to tease her
‘Yes! the flower’s prettier’

At which
in a burst of girlish rage
she crumples the flower to bits
and flings them
at him

Tree peonies also came to be an element in design motifs of the less rarefied, but no less beautiful crafts like ceramics and stone carving.

Ming dynasty porcelain jar.

Detail of stone pillar support in the Forbidden City, Beijing.

Carved stone stool in Luoyang.

Detail of decorative ceramic tile in the Forbidden City, Beijing.

The new Peony Heaven unisex t-shirt, our own contribution to the pantheon of peony inspired art. Wear it equally well for a day spent in the garden or a museum.

Court Artists under the Qianlong emperor (r.1735-95), Activities of the Months: Fourth Month.

The royal fixation with tree peonies is show in the this painting from the Qing dynasty. The sole activity of April seems to be appreciating the tree peonies.

Lest we think of peonies as solely the privilege of the wealthy to enjoy, it is important to remember that tree peonies are with good reason the ‘national flower’ of China. In a society so often divided by class and inequality, tree peonies are one of the cultural artifacts, like dumplings and baijiu, aka Chinese white lightning, which serve as the cohesive glue that help unite such a large and diverse society.

Old farmer of rural Gansu province with a tree peony in his garden.

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