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October 2004

Did you know that Tree peony (Paeonia suffruticosa) has been in the process of becoming the National Flower of China?

Tree peony - Paeonia suffruticosa

Tree peony - Paeonia suffruticosa

Sometimes, a flower can be more than just a beautiful, fleeting thing.  It can be a cultural symbol, a muse, or an obsession.  The tree peony (Paeonia suffruticosa) is all of the above.  Known as mudan in its native China, the tree peony has been grown and revered by Chinese herbalists, gardeners, artists, and nobility for more than 1500 years.  The first written record of mudan, in an ancient Chinese materia medica, described the medicinal value of the plant.

What is a tree peony?  It is not, as its name implies, a tree.  It is a medium-sized, spreading shrub with fern-like, deciduous leaves and unimaginably large and often fragrant flowers.  Cultivated tree peonies are hybrids of a number of woody peony species native to the mountains of central and western China. 

Herbaceous peony in Chinese language is shaoyao ( or shoyao) which means "medicinal herb plant". The root of shaoyao was what first interested the Chinese. 

 The tree peony entered the lives of the Chinese people through the herbaceous peony, shaoyao. Similarly, the root of the tree peony was the most significant part to the Chinese. It was first called tree shaoyao and other names, eventually mudan ( or moutan). Mudan means "male scarlet flower" because its propagation is principally by root division, instead of the usual way, by seeds that requires the pollination of male and female flowers.

The earliest record of the tree peony was found in 1972 in a first century tomb. On one of the bamboo slips ( before paper was invented in 105 A.D. in China), a prescription was written: using the skin of the tree peonys root to counteract blood clotting. We have no exact record on when and how the esthetic aspect of the tree peony became a favorite of Chinese flower lovers. A famous painter, Gu Kaizhi (345-406), painted a garden scene with tree peonies in the background. Judging from this garden scene, we may assume that it must have been for some time already that the tree peony was domesticated and planted in gardens for enjoyment. During the time of Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty (605-618), we found in recorded history that at one time a tribute of 20 cases of tree peony of various names in red and yellow were presented to the Emperor.

From the Tang Dynasty to the end of the Song Dynasty (618-1279), the tree peony enjoyed enormous prestige. It was the favourite flower from the imperial court down to the common folks. Calling it the "king of flowers" was initiated in the Tang Dynasty (618-907). A poet wrote "Only the tree peony is worthy of being called the Beauty of the Empire. During its blooming time the whole capital city went berserk." "Horses and carriages were coming and going like crazy. Those who didnt go to see the flowers were feeling ashamed of themselves." People were enthralled by the tree peony. Poets wrote poems, musicians composed songs, artists painted pictures, and writers wrote articles about it. One of the most valuable articles preserved till today is Ouyang Xius (1007-1072) "Record of the Tree Peony in Luoyang". In this article he listed 24 kinds of tree peonies and described them one by one. Today, several in this group are still in existence and treasured by flower lovers in China and abroad alike.

During the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), China was ruled by the Mongols. The quality of life of the people declined, so did their hobbies, arts, and culture in general. Many fine cultivars of the tree peony disappeared from the face of the earth.

From 1368 to 1911 during the Ming and Qing Dynasties the King of Flowers was resurrected, again to reign like it had in its good times in the past, perhaps, even more so in some respects. During this period, an increasing number of large cities throughout China became preoccupied with growing and cultivating the tree peony. The size of some of the fields surpassed those in the Tang and Song Dynasties. Acres upon acres of land were blanketed with different colors of the tree peony flowers. Dowager Ci Xi (1835-1908) of the Qing Dynasty made the tree peony the National Flower.

From the last years of the Qing Dynasty, the Chinese people never had a period of peaceful living. Their lives were disrupted, even terminated for good by natural disasters, such as floods and droughts, civil wars and the Sino-Japanese War (1937-45). When the destruction was so severe, extensive and long lasting, everything in the living environment was affected. Many of the tree peonys fine cultivars suffered fatally.

In 1933 when one of the Yellow Rivers worst floods occurred in Heze, the main tree peony growing center since the 14th century, (Heze is located in the lower stream of the Yellow River valley.), more than 50% of their tree peonies were drowned. The people suffered starvation. As one tree peony grower remembered, "... I could not exchange a 4 years old tree peony for half a kilo of yams." For survival, the growers with tears in their eyes and pains in their hearts dug up their peonies to plant crops for food. In 1949, at Heze there were less than 100 varieties left. In 1966, after much efforts, 112 varieties were restored. Among them were some of the most valued traditional varieties. During the Cultural Revolution (l966-76), raising flowers was forbidden. The growers were allowed to grow peonies only for harvesting of the roots for medicinal use.

Ever since 1987, national and local governments have given support and funds to the tree peony growers encouraging expansion in space, research in several areas and new developments. Now, there are about one thousand varieties of tree peonies in China. Year after year Chinese tree peony growers have been shipping tree peonies to an increasing number of gardens in different cities in China and abroad.

A final note, the tree peony, (Mudan) has been in the process of becoming the National Flower of China. During the year 1994, there was a movement which touched every district in the country asking the people to select a flower as the national flower. The tree peony received the majority votes. The Chinese people are waiting for the governments proclamation.





Silver Vine - Actinidia polygama
Yerba Mansa - Anemopsis californica
Tree of Death - Manchineel - Hippomane mancinella
Dove Tree - Davidia involucrata
Ashwagandha - Winter Cherry - Withania somnifera
Zabala - Lardizabala biternata
Longan - Dimocarpus longan
Flame tree - Delonix regia
Ōrchid tree - Bauhinia variegata
Pink Lapacho - Handroanthus impetiginosus
African peach - Nauclea latifolia
Golden Himalayan raspberry - Rubus ellipticus
Flame Thrower Palm - Chambeyronia macrocarpa
Toothbrush tree - Mustard tree - Salvadora persica
Monastery bamboo - Thyrsostachys siamensis
Nara - Desert melon - Acanthosicyos horridus
Candelabra tree - Euphorbia ingens
Shea butter tree - Vitellaria paradoxa
Tejocote - Mexican hawthorn - Crataegus mexicana
Tree of Damocles - Oroxylum indicum
Talipot palm - Corypha umbraculifera
Albany pitcher plant - Cephalotus follicularis
Nipa palm - Nypa fruticans
Marmalade Box - Genipa americana
Ice Cream Bean - Inga edulis
Gular - Cluster fig - Ficus racemosa
Kei apple - Dovyalis caffra
Stork's Bill - Erodium cicutarium
Camu Camu - Myrciaria dubia
Pemphis - Pemphis acidula
Sisal - Agave sisalana
Jute Mallow - Corchorus olitorius
Sugar Apple - Annona squamosa
Sapodilla - Manilkara zapota
Black Sapote - Diospyros nigra
Star Apple - Chrysophyllum cainito
White Ginger Lily - Hedychium coronarium
Yuzu - Citrus junos
Wild Loquat - Sugar Plum - Uapaca kirkiana
Tonka - Cumaru - Dipteryx odorata
Chinese bayberry - Myrica rubra
Wood Apple - Limonia acidissima
Açaí - Euterpe oleracea
Tindola - Ivy gourd - Coccinia grandis
Blue honeysuckle - Haskap - Lonicera caerulea
Balata - Manilkara bidentata
Calabash nutmeg - Monodora myristica
Kola nut - Cola nitida
Rainbow eucalyptus - Eucalyptus deglupta
Elephant apple - Dillenia indica
Australian Christmas tree - Nuytsia floribunda
Honeywort- Cerinthe major
Aconite - Monkshood - Wolfsbane - Aconitum napellus
Crown of Thorns - Euphorbia milii
Abyssinian banana - Ensete ventricosum
Goldenrain Tree - Koelreuteria paniculata
Naranjilla - Lulo - Solanum quitoense
Brazil nut tree - Bertholletia excelsa
Sea grape - Coccoloba uvifera
Bignay - Antidesma bunius
Cashew - Anacardium occidentale
Giant Himalayan Lily - Cardiocrinum giganteum
African Hemp - Sparrmannia africana
Lychee - Litchi chinensis
Prickly Heath - Gaultheria mucronata
Hoodia - Bushman's hat - Hoodia gordonii
Cannibals Tomato - Solanum viride
Ashoka - Saraca asoca
Ackee - Blighia sapida
African plum - Safou - Dacryodes edulis
Solandra - Solandra maxima
Stapelia - Stapelia gigantea
Foxglove - Digitalis purpurea
Swiss Cheese Plant - Monstera deliciosa
Chocolate flower - Berlandiera lyrata
Sandersonia - Sandersonia aurantiaca
Northern Japanese Magnolia - Magnolia kobus
Champak - Magnolia champaca
Hookerís lips - Psychotria elata
Suicide Tree - Cerbera odollam
Konjac - Amorphophallus konjac
Madagascar ocotillo - Alluaudia procera
Water Banana - Typhonodorum lindleyanum
Salak - Salacca zalacca
Natal Plum - Carissa macrocarpa
Ashanti blood - Mussaenda erythrophylla
Duranta - Duranta erecta
Maqui - Aristotelia chilensis
Manuka - New Zealand Tea Tree - Leptospermum scoparium
Suriname cherry - Eugenia uniflora
Australian Finger Lime - Citrus australasica
Sacred Flower of the Incas - Cantua buxifolia
Job's tears - Coix Lacryma-jobi
Velvet Bean - Mucuna pruriens
Java Apple - Syzygium samarangense
Screwpine - Pandanus utilis
Marimo - Aegagropila linnaei
Achocha/Caigua - Inca cucumber - Cyclanthera pedata
Rubber Tree - Hevea brasiliensis
Sugar cane - Saccharum officinarum
Sacha inchi - Plukenetia volubilis
Coffea - Coffee Tree - Coffea arabica
Liquorice - Licorice - Glycyrrhiza glabra
Mullein -Verbascum thapsus
Iceplant - Mesembryanthemum crystallinum
Chayote - Sechium edule
Roselle - Hibiscus sabdariffa
Black Goji - Lycium ruthenicum Murray
Rose Cactus - Pereskia grandifolia
Durian - Durio zibethinus
Jackfruit tree - Artocarpus heterophyllus
Cassabanana - Sicana odorifera
Chilean myrtle - Arrayan - Luma apiculata
Kurrajong - Brachychiton populneus
Rice-paper Plant -Tetrapanax papyrifer
Shell Ginger - Alpinia zerumbet
Harlequin Glorybower - Clerodendrum trichotomum
Coco de Mer - Lodoicea maldivica
Silver Tree - Leucadendron argenteum
Buffaloberry - Shepherdia argentea
Himalayan Honeysuckle - Leycesteria formosa
Raisin Tree - Hovenia dulcis
Borojo - Alibertia patinoi - Borojoa patinoi
Butterfly Pea - Clitoria ternatea
Honey Flower - Melianthus major
Ombu - Phytolacca dioica
Lion's Ear - Wild Dagga - Leonotis leonurus
Moringa - Miracle Tree - Moringa oleifera
Sea Daffodil - Pancratium maritimum
Spear Lily - Gymea - Doryanthes
Camphor tree - Cinnamomum camphora
Waterwheel - Aldrovanda vesiculosa
Flowering rush - Butomus umbellatus
Four o'clock - Marvel of Peru - Mirabilis jalapa
Dead Manís Fingers - Decaisnea
Bitter Melon - Momordica charantia
Shoapnuts Tree - Shoapberry - Sapindus
Acerola - Malpighia
Monkey Ladder - Sea Heart - Entada gigas
Cherimoya - Annona cherimola
Caper - Capparis spinosa
Lithops - Living Stones
Chaste Tree - Vitex agnus-castus
Chilean Lantern Tree - Crinodendron hookerianum
Parrot's Beak - Lotus berthelotii
Water Hyacinth - Eichhornia crassipes
Guaiac Tree - Guaiacum officinale - Lignum-vitae
Mickey Mouse bush - Ochna serrulata
Cow's Udder - Solanum mammosum
Miracle fruit - Synsepalum dulcificum
Akebia - Akebia quinata
Chilean Firebush - Embothrium coccineum
Caesalpinia - Caesalpinia pulcherrima
Welwitschia - Welwitschia mirabilis
Saguaro - Carnegiea gigantea
Schisandra - Schisandra chinensis
Monarda - Bee balm - Bergamot
Tamarind - Tamarindus indica
Neomarica - Walking Iris
Red hot poker - Kniphofia - Tritoma
Sikkim rhubarb - Rheum nobile
Reseda - Mignonette
Paulownia - Paulownia tomentosa
Belamcanda chinensis - Leopard lily
Blue Poppy - Meconopsis
Cannonball Tree - Couroupita guianensis
Tamarillo - Cyphomandra betacea
Goji - Wolfberry - Lycium barbarum
Vanilla - Vanilla Planifolia
Stevia - Stevia rebaudiana
Sturt pea - Swainsona formosa
Jade vine - Strongylodon macrobotrys
Sansevieria - Snake Plant
Yareta - Azorella compacta
African tulip tree - Spathodea campanulata
Angel's Trumpets - Brugmansia
Achiote - Annato - Bixa orellana
Sausage Tree - Kigelia pinnata
Castor Oil Plant - Ricinus communis
Firewheel Tree - Stenocarpus sinuatus
Bat Flower - Tacca
Snake gourd - Trichosanthes cucumerina
Hydnora - Hydnora africana
Pickerel Weed - Pontederia
Argan - Argania spinosa
Astilbe - False Goats Beard
Feijoa - Pineapple Guava - Acca sellowiana
Aquilegia - Columbine
Sweet Box - Sarcococca
Christmas Cactus - Schlumbergera
Foxtail Lily - Eremurus
Rue - Ruta graveolens
Ylang-Ylang - Cananga odorata
Rose of Jericho - Anastatica hierochuntica
Waterlily - Nymphaea
Calico Flower - Aristolochia
Daylily - Hemerocallis
Contorted hazel - Corylus avellana Contorta
Torch Ginger - Etlingera elatior
Mistletoe - Viscum album
Devil´s claw - Harpagophytum procumbens
Teasel - Dipsacus
Pampas grass - Gynerium argenteum - Cortaderia Selloanna
Purple coneflower - Echinacea purpurea
Coral Tree - Erythrina crista-galli
Field Poppy - Papaver Rhoeas
Narcissus - Daffodil
Mimosa pudica - Sensitive Plant
Boxwood - Buxus sempervirens
Firethorn - Pyracantha
Star of Bethlehem - Ornithogalum
Muscari - Grape Hyacinth
Papyrus - Cyperus papyrus
Honeysuckle - Lonicera
Passiflora - Passion Flower
Calendula - Marigold
Lupine - Lupinus
Canna - Indian Shot
Witch Hazel - Hamamelis
Oak - Quercus
Brunsvigia - Candelabra Flower
Tree peony - Paeonia suffruticosa
Olive - Olea europaea
Cornflower - Centaurea cyanus
Desert rose - Adenium obesum
Oleander - Nerium Oleander
Sweet Pea - Lathyrus odoratus
Chaenomeles - Flowering Quince
Amaryllis - Hippeastrum
Butchers broom - Ruscus aculeatus
Bay Laurel - Laurus nobilis
Artichoke - Cynara scolymus
Clivia - Clivia Miniata
Dipladenia - Dipladenia sanderii
Date palm - Phoenix dactylifera
Peach - Prunus persica
Almond - Prunus amygdalus
Willow - Salix
Pomegranate - Punica granatum
Protea cynaroides
Colchicum autumnale
Bird of Paradise - Strelitzia reginae
Cardon - Pachycereus pringlei
Wolffia arrhiza
Puya raimondii
Asphodelus - Asphodel
Primula - Primerose
Dicentra spectabilis - Bleeding Heart
Edelweiss - Leontopodium alpinum
Helleborus Niger - Christmas Rose
Zantedeschia - Calla Lily
Fritillaria imperialis - Crown imperial
Common Sunflower - Helianthus annuus
Bee Orchid - Orphys apifera
Convalaria majalis - Lily of the Valley - Muguet
Syringa Vurgaris - Lilac
Snowdrop - Galanthus
Poinsettia - Euphorbia pulcherrima
Dionaea muscipula
Sea anemone
Amorrhophallus titanum
Rafflesia arnoldi


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