Archive for the ‘Peony History’ Category

Peonies, both tree and herbaceous first attracted human interest thousands of years ago. While we today primarily think of peonies as stunning ornamentals, our ancestors viewed them as important medicinal plants.

Tree peonies are grown commercially in China for use in traditional Chinese medicine. Here a farmer in Anhui province tends his field planted with the tree peony ‘Phoenix White’ and rapeseed (Brassica napus).

Tree and herbaceous peonies are native to Eastern China and wild herbaceous peonies are found growing throughout the Mediterranean regions of Europe. Tree peonies were anointed the national flower of China where they were crowned the ‘king of flowers’  or hua wang over 2000 years ago. An anonymous Greek poet penned a similar sentiment around 300 CE with the epitaph: “Peony, queen of all herbs…” Indeed, it is striking and attests to the real medicinal value of peony roots that in both Greece and China written records survive from the 1st century CE which speak of their beneficial medical properties.

Sliced and dried peony roots are still used in traditional Chinese medicine.

Peony roots contain alkaloids and glucosides. In both China and Europe the roots of peonies are traditionally used for their antispasmodic qualities. It is asserted to have been successfully employed in relieving epilepsy, spasms, and various nervous afflictions. In traditional Chinese medicine, dried peony root is used to treat liver abnormalities, improve blood circulation, as well as to ease a women’s menstruation pains. One of the primary varieties of tree peonies grown for use in Chinese medicine is Phoenix White, which is also cultivated for it’s beautiful flowers.

Paeonia mascula (above) and Paeonia officinalis in the herbal guide of the Greek herbalist Pedanios Dioscorides (c.500 CE).

Our word peony has its roots in ancient Greek. The plant was recognized to possess many curative properties, and was thus given an association with the gods. Paeon, was the physician to the Greek gods and is said to have discovered the uses of the peony root. According to myth, Paeon was a student of Asclepius, the god of medicine and healing. Leto, the goddess of fertility once told Paeon of a special root growing on the slopes of Mt. Olympus which would help soothe the pains of childbirth. Asclepius became jealous of his student, and in his rage threatened to kill Paeon. In order to save Paeon, Zeus turned him into a peony flower so that he could continue to alleviate the pain of women in childbirth. Some sources state that peony seeds were taken by pregnant women in ancient Greece.

The Roman Philny the Elder wrote that a tincture of peony roots “prevents the mocking illusions that the Fauns bring to us in our sleep.” This illustration comes from a 16th century German herbal.

In Chinese, the characters for both ‘tree peony’ and ‘herbaceous peony’ also show that these plants were first associated with medicine and healing. In Chinese, tree peony is ‘mudan.’ This compound word consists of two characters. The first ‘mu,’ is composed of two radicals, one which means ox or bull, and the other which signifies something of the earth, or made of earth. The second character, ‘dan‘ represents a medical pill. It can also mean the color red, or the mineral cinnabar.

The chinese charater for tree peony, mudan.

The compound character for herbaceous peony, ‘shao yao‘  reveals the original medical use of the plant. The first character, ‘shao‘ is composed of the sign for plants atop the pictogram for a full spoon or ladle. The second character, ‘yao‘ means medicine, literally, “the plants which bring happiness.”

The Chinese charater for herbaceous peony, shaoyao.

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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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Each year, in the northern Chinese city of Taiyuan “when the seven stars of the Big Dipper point to the southeast” a tree peony blooms at the Twin Pagoda Temple. This has happened every April for the last four hundred years.

This tree peony was planted over 400 years ago. It is 5′ tall and 10′ wide, and has hundreds of blossoms each spring.

Taiyuan is the provincial capital of Shanxi province, located about 325 miles southwest of Beijing. Today it is a smoggy industrial town, which remains conspicuously less wealthy than other large Chinese cities. The economy of Shanxi is primarily derived from the province’s enormous deposits of coal, which is mined to power the manufacturing hubs located on the more prosperous eastern coast. The air in Taiyuan is heavy and acrid, and it is certainly not a popular destination for the average tourist. However, located there is an absolute peony treasure.

The city of Taiyuan is located in the heart of China’s coal country.

Located in the heart of old Taiyuan city, is the Twin Pagoda Temple. This complex of buildings was constructed in the Ming Dynasty during the reign of the emperor Wan Li (1572-1620) and was used as an examination hall for the Imperial civil service exam.  Passing this examination and becoming a civil administrator was the height of achievement for the ruling gentry class.

Amongst the grit and grime of modern Taiyuan, the Twin Pagoda Temple complex is a sanctuary of calm and beauty.

When the temple complex was constructed, tree peonies were planted in the main courtyard between the two pagodas.

Besides the main specimen, many clones have been propagated from it, filling the courtyard with blooms for a few short weeks each April.

One of these tree peonies, variously translated as “Glowing Purple Clouds of the Immortals” or “Fairy’s Glow” (Zi Xia Xian 紫霞仙) has survived to the present day and blooms gloriously with hundreds of heavily scented  flowers each spring.

The blossoms of “Glowing Purple Clouds of the Immortals” are about 8” diameter, with velvety petals and lush fragrance.

In the first half of the 20th century an inordinate amount of upheaval, destruction and suffering descended upon the land and people China. During World War II, Chinese troops and resistance fighters encamped on the grounds of the Twin Pagoda Temple. Japanese planes bombed the complex, destroying the iconic twin pagodas and many of the buildings. Amazingly the peonies survived, and have even flourished.

One of ‘younger’ specimens of Zi Xia Xian. Throughout the tumult of modern Chinese history, the “Glowing Purple Clouds of the Immortals” have endured.

After the war, the pagodas were rebuilt and the complex restored to some degree. When we visited several years ago, the new director of Twin Pagoda Temple Museum, Zhang Hong, was overseeing an elaborate restoration of the entire complex with its intricately carved details and colorful paintings. The traditional covered walkway was then just nearing completion.  If you ever find yourself in northern China during early April, we cannot recommend enough a trip to Taiyuan and the Twin Pagoda Temple to see the spectacular 400 year old peonies in full glory.

For more information on growing tree peonies, see our website www.treepeony.com

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