Archive for the ‘Tree Peonies in China’ Category

As the fall planting season approaches, we are thinking about were to plant a few new tree and herbaceous peonies, as well as moving some overcrowded older tree peonies to more suitable locations. Planning new areas of the garden or renovating older sections requires some imagination and a knowledge of your soil and conditions. How much sun do you have? At least 6 hours?  It is work, but it is fun as you imagine how spectacular the blooms themselves will be and how the plants interact with the rest of the landscape.

In planning your own garden, its may be interesting to consider how peonies are treated in China and Japan versus how they are traditionally used in landscapes in western Europe and America.  In both east Asia, western Europe and America,  all types of peonies play an important role in the spring garden. There is a distinction in how they are used, whether they are showcased or planted as part of ‘mixed’ border.

In China, and to a slightly lesser extent Japan, peony flowers, and particularly tree peony flowers, are held up as the ideal, unsurpassed by any other flowering plant. This judgement was rendered hundreds of years ago by Chinese literati; poets and painters, and has in China become part of the cultural lore. This is why tree peonies are the national flower of China. As a result, whole gardens in China are devoted to tree peonies, especially in Louyang, Beijing, Shanghai and Heze. Many of these older public gardens were formally private, belonging to wealthy gentry, which were only opened to the “people” after the 1949 Communist revolution in China. Private garden culture as we know it in the U.S. does not exist in Chinese cities, space is valuable and many millions of people live in modern highrise apartments and condominiums. Chinese farmers in the countryside would grow a peony or two, but growing space is too valuable to be used for many ornamental plants.

It is in the public gardens where the peonies are celebrated. Tree peonies are grouped with 3 to 5 or more of the same kind for a mass bloom effect. In these plantings of hundreds or thousands of specimens there is no need for inter-plantings of anything which would flower either before or after the peonies. Herbaceous peonies are planted in these gardens, often reserved for sunnier areas, as borders around walkways. The herbaceous peony does not hold the same exalted status, and in history they have been known as the “medical root”. In the past 40 years, more herbaceous peonies in China have been developed as an ornamental plants and valued as a bloom extender, since it blooms after the tree peonies. The overall effect of these all-peony gardens is a glorious, riotous bacchanal of fragrance and color for about 2-3 weeks, with the rest of the season a quiet sea of green shrubs.

Mass tree peony planting at the Hundred Flowers Garden in Heze, Shandong province, China.

Mass tree peony planting at the Hundred Flowers Garden in Heze, Shandong province, China.


About ten years ago, The National Peony Garden in Luoyang was planted with thousands of tree peonies.

Mono-culture plantings of peonies in China are living museums to the national flower, preserving and showcasing some cultivars which have been propagated for almost a millennium.

Tree peonies planted in the former imperial gardens in the Forbidden City, Beijing.

Tree peonies planted in the former imperial gardens in the Forbidden City, Beijing.

In this garden in Hangzhou, China the tree peonies to not face any copetition from companion plantings, thought they are beutifly contasted by the background foliage.

In this garden in Hangzhou the tree peonies to not face any competition from companion plantings aside from some mounding grasses and are beautifully contrasted by the background foliage.

Traditional tree peony gardens in Japan are similarly focused on the peonies, with very spare plantings of other plants.


An early 20th century Japanese post card shows traditional tree peony plantings in Tokyo.

A tree peony planting in Tokyo, 2013. Note that the peonies are planted in a slighly raised terrace. This seems to be a coomon practice in Japnese tree peony plantings. There are many good reasons to do this, both practical and esthetic. The tree peonies benfeit from the excellent drainge afforded by the rasied bed and the bloosoms are displayed at eye level for all to admire.

A tree peony planting in Tokyo, 2013. Note that the peonies are planted in a slightly raised terrace. This seems to be a common practice in Japanese tree peony plantings. There are many good reasons to do this, both practical and esthetic. The tree peonies benefit from the excellent drainage afforded by the raised bed and the blossoms are displayed at eye level for all to admire.

In America, botanical gardens with peony collections have often planted them according to the Chinese and Japanese plan, in large groups which have an otherworldly visual effect and also serve to showcase these historical and culturally significant plants.

Tree peony collection at the New York Botanical Garden.

Tree peony collection at the New York Botanical Garden.

While it is not the scope of the post to begin a long treatise on design and influences of our modern American gardens, we in America are a motley group from all corners of the world, bringing our favorite plants with us when we can. Plants remind us of our homes and our history and our relations.

Countless people tell us that the peonies remind us of their grandmother, who grew them for decades. The rewarding thing about growing a peony, both herbaceous and tree, is that once settled in a good spot, they do thrive for a very long time, outliving countless perennials. They are survivors, and have a rich history intertwined with our growth and settlement.

A few species of herbaceous peonies are native to western Europe. The ancient Greeks recognized these as important medicinal plants and as gardens shifted from purely utilitarian, producing food and medicine, to ornamental, peonies remained part of the mix. The famous 19th century English garden designer Gertrude Jekyll advocated the use of peonies as part of mixed perennial border. Jekyll also designed gardens in the United States and her ideas were influential here. She drew her inspiration from an idealized notion of the traditional English cottage garden, that had a succession of bloom and remained colorful during a long growing season.

Peonies in the cottage garden 'A Devon Cottage' by Claude Strachan, 1865-1935.

Peonies are depicted in ‘A Devon Cottage’ by Claude Strachan, 1865-1935.

In this arrangement, peonies (usually herbaceous) play an important role in providing late spring-early summer color, but they are by no means the main attraction of the garden.

Hebaceous peonies as part of formal English or American garden. Lillies and roses are interplanted and will provide color after the peonies have faded.

Herbaceous peonies as part of formal English garden, with lilies and roses interplanted. These shrubs and perennials will provide color after the peonies have gone to all green.

Another often seen treatment of peonies, again mainly herbaceous,  is to devote an entire border or bed to them. Herbaceous peonies make great plants for cut flowers.

Herbaceous peony border at Penshurst Place, Kent, UK.

Herbaceous peony border at Penshurst Place, Kent, UK.

Allowing three feet of width for each plant, borders are often one to three plants wide (3-12 feet) and of a length suitable to the overall size of the garden. These peony borders can be planted according to color, flower form, or fragrance. When planning a peony bed its important to keep plant height and bloom sequence in mind. Taller plants are kept to the back and early bloom varieties are interspersed with mid- and late season cultivars. This provides a balanced look which is colorful throughout the peony season.

Rather than following any set plan, many gardeners allow imagination and their own taste to guide their use of peonies in the landscape.

Tree peony 'L'Esperance' in a formal setting at the National Trust's Hidcote Garden, Gloucestershire.

Tree peony ‘L’Esperance’ in a formal setting at the National Trust’s Hidcote Garden, Gloucestershire.

Tree peonies blooming at Cricket Hill Garden. Here we ahve interplanted hosta, and allowed some digitalis to self-seed.

Tree peonies blooming at Cricket Hill Garden. Here we have inter-planted hosta and creeping phlox (phlox subulata) in areas of partial shade.  Allow tree peonies at least 6 hours to bloom well.

In parts of the garden, we do inter-plant spring bulbs which bloom with the tree peonies.

In parts of the garden, we do interplant spring bulbs which bloom with the tree peonies. These tulips bloom in May.

In some areas we have summer blooming perennials which provide color in July and August. Many different annuals can also be worked with into your peony bed, provided they are not too large to smother the peony plants.

In this shady area a tree peony grows with hellebores, pulmonaria and annual impatients.


In this sunny area, herbaceous peonies grow backed by a tall border with bronze fennel, buddleia and hydrangea in full bloom in August.

Our next blog post will discuss an extended list of interplantings we have found successful at Cricket Hill Garden.

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The 31st annual Peony Festival opened in Luoyang on April 1st 2013. This ancient city, located in the center of Henan province, about 500 miles southwest of Beijing, served as the capital of China during many dynasties. At Cricket Hill Garden, we have imported some of our tree peony stock from Luoyang since the late 1980s, and have benefited enormously from the willingness of growers there to share their expertise in the cultivation of these spectacular plants. We hear from our friends there that the weather has cooperated this year and that the natural bloom of peonies in the field will be from April 10th to 25th.  In 1999, 2000, 2005 and 2008 we were extremely fortunate to be able to see the tree peonies in full bloom in Luoyang. We hope that you will enjoy the pictures of our trips there and that it serves as a tantalizing preview of the peony bloom to come closer to home.

There are several public tree peony garden in Luoyang. Perhaps the most famous is the Wangcheng Park. This formerly private garden is said to be built on the site of a prince’s ancient palace.

Over the last decade many new peony gardens have been constructed in Luoyang.

The spectacular Longmen caves outside of Luoyang were carved by Buddhist monks beginning in the 5th century CE. A visit to Luoyang must include some time at this awe-inspiring site.

Though this year only marks the 31st anniversary of the modern Peony Festival in Luoyang, tree peonies have been grown there for over 1400 years. Tradition tells us that peonies first arrived in Luoyang in the Tang Dynasty during the reign of Empress Wu (690-705 CE). Remembered even today as a mercurial ruler, she is said to have ordered all of the flowers to bloom for her birthday. The tree peonies alone disobeyed her edict, and for that offense were banished from the splendors of the Imperial Gardens in capital Chang’an (modern Xian). As punishment, the tree peonies were exiled to Luoyang. There, in continued defiance of the imperial will, they flourished. Improved breeding and cultivation techniques over hundreds of years led to the development of hybrids in the multitude of colors and shapes that are still grown today.

When we fist visited Luoyang, we were very surprised to see how little organic matter there is in the soil. In fact, peonies thrive in this highly mineral loess soil, composed of silt deposited from flooding of the Yellow River. The samples we took from peony growing fields had a pH of 7.2 and were very high in calcium as well as other minerals.

When we first visited Luoyang, the color and size of flowers astonished us. We still strive to match such bountiful blooms in our own garden.

In the Song Dynasty, about a hundred and fifty years after Empress Wu banished the tree peonies to Luoyang, the scholar and official Ouyang Xiu wrote a treatise on the unsurpassed beauty of the peonies there. His Tree Peonies of Luoyang deals extensively with the methods of cultivation of the merits of named cultivars grown there.

Using technology not much changed since the time of Ouyang Xiu, a worker uses a cultivating tool constructed out of an old bicycle to cut up small weeds in a nursery bed.

Luoyang continues to be an important center for tree peony research and breeding. Shown here is the ‘gene bank’ of the wild species Peonia ostii.

In China, peonies are often planted in blocks by cultivar. This produces a striking visual effect.

Ouyang writes that “in the spring all the residents of [Luoyang], whether high-ranking or lowly, wear them in their hair. Even laborers carrying things through the street on poles do this. When the flowers first blossom, gentlemen and commoners alike rush to go view them.” We easily recognize this infatuation with the flowers. Each spring, the peonies cast this irresistible allure on all who behold them.

Peony princess of Luoyang.

The Peony Festival is a very festive time with young and old all reveling in the beauty of the flowers.

Trying to capture the essence of an ephemeral flower, while also avoiding the hot spring sun of north China.

The flowers are also shaded from the strong spring sun to prolong the bloom.

Ouyang Xiu describes in his treatise Luoyang as a city in the grips of peony mania, where intoxicated residents were willing to pay exorbitant prices for highly prized cultivars. Today tree peonies are still known in Luoyang as ‘bai liang jin’ or ‘one hundred ounces of gold,’ the price for the most sought after varieties during the height of the peony mania of the Tang dynasty. Unwitting out-of-towners, unfamiliar with peony growing, but also under their spell of their blossoms, paid enormous sums of money for dead plants which had their roots boiled. This was done to ensure that Luoyang would continue to have a monopoly on the beauty of these flowers.

Cricket Hill Garden’s David Furman with Luoyang peony grower Wu Jingxu in his growing fields.

The people of Luoyang no longer so jealously guard their peonies, which are rightly, still held in such high regard. Many of the classic varieties of Chinese tree peonies originate from Luoyang. Perhaps most famous is ‘Luoyang Red’, one of our all time favorite varieties. Today, the main boulevard of downtown Luoyang is planted with spectacular specimens of ‘Luoyang Red’. We take great pride in the fact it also flourishes in our garden as well as in those of hundreds of our customers in America.

‘Luoyang Red’ blooming in our Peony Heaven at Cricket Hill Garden.

Over the next few weeks as the tree peony bloom begins in China, we will be posting new pictures of various gardens and sites of peony cultivation there, so be sure to check back soon.

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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 Chinese, chun jie, the word for the traditional lunar new year, means “spring festival.” Though it is still very much winter in northern and central China, the new year heralds the slow awakening of spring. Traditionally the holiday is celebrated by families with mountains of dumplings, and large arsenals of fireworks. Another tradition is ‘forcing’ tree peonies to bloom in time for the New Year. In China, tree peonies represent prosperity and achievement as well as tokens of love. A blooming tree peony not only injects some much needed color into the winter days, but is also a wish for good fortune in the new year.

Forcing tree peonies to bloom in the winter is done by potting up plants in the fall and gradually raising the temperatures in a greenhouse over the course of about two months. There is a very large market in China for forced tree peonies. Businesses display blooming peonies at their offices, and people give potted plants as gifts to friends and family. City governments and universities also put on large public exhibitions of forced tree peonies. A grower we know in China said that his nursery alone forces more than 10,000 plants for the holiday. He estimated that overall about 1,000,000 potted tree peonies are forced to bloom in time for sale during the Spring Festival.

Budded tree peonies in a greenhouse about a week away from opening.

Unfortunately, the roots of these tree peonies have been severely trimmed to fit in these small pots. They will need to be transplanted into the ground or much larger containers for long-term survival. It will take many years before the plants are able to produce this many blossoms again.

Peonies in the winter!

In order to preserve the blossoms, they are wrapped in newspaper for transport.

This exhibition for the 2011 Spring Festival at the Institute of Botany at the Chinese Academy of Sciences feature over fifty different varieties of tree peonies.

Spring is coming!

At Cricket Hill Garden we have successfully forced tree peonies in the past and are happy to announce that we will be doing so again next year for the 2015 CT Flower and Garden show.

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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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