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
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
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
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
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
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