Gardening Articles: Flowers :: Perennials

Chinese Tree Peonies

by Kasha and David Furman

The mountains of central and western China are the original home of tree peonies (Paeonia suffruticosa and related species). Like their Japanese cousins, Chinese tree peonies are widely adapted and thrive throughout the U.S.

Chinese tree peonies (mudan hua) were first cultivated in the mid-seventh century in the gardens of the Chinese emperors; they soon gained such popularity among the upper classes that they were, and still are, recognized as China's national flower. The plants have long held a place of honor in the gardens of China, Japan, and Korea.

The reasons for this veneration are found in the characteristics of the flowers themselves. Colors range from white through shades of pink, magenta, red, and yellow, as well as variable hues. But descriptions alone don't do justice to the way they look. Each petal has numerous shades that give the flower a look of shimmering silk.

Flower sizes range from 6 to 12 inches across. Some of the largest blooms are so heavy that they hang or droop on the plant, and this has led to a misconception that droopy stems are a feature of all Chinese tree peonies. This is true of only a few kinds.

Flower shapes vary from daisylike singles through numerous semidouble forms -- all with stamens and petal-like carpels (where the seed grows) showing -- to complex doubles. The double shapes remind the Chinese of strings of coins, and the flowers are symbols of prosperity and wealth.

Many plants display both semidouble and double flowers at the same time. Very heavy double flowers are likely to face downward or to the side, while single and semidouble flowers face upward. Similarly, varieties with the largest, most complex flowers won't produce fully developed flowers until they are sufficiently mature. You may have to wait two to three years after planting to see the "thousand-petal" form of 'Zhao's Pink'. A few kinds, such as 'Pea Green', might take 10 years.

Fragrance ranges from woodsy through spicy to sweet, and its intensity from delicate to dense. Blossoms with a dense spicy or sweet fragrance will fill the space around them with an aroma unique to these plants.

From an eighth-century document, we find this testimony to tree peonies' tremendous appeal: "In front of the Audience Hall of the Emperor, there are planted many thousand-petaled tree peonies. When the flowers first opened, the fragrance of their perfume was perceived by everyone. Each flower blossom has a thousand petals, is large, and deep red. Every time His Majesty gazed upon the sweet-scented luxuriance, he would say, 'Surely such a flower never existed before among humans.'"

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