Tree peonies revisited

The new Plantsman vol. 1, 4:195-205,247 (1994)

In the early seventies, some British friends wanted to recruit me to help in the rescue of the Hanbury Gardens in La Mortola (and they succeeded!). It happened that I found myself at Kew, seated around a table with some eminent personalities of the British botanical and horticultural establishment. I wanted to use this opportunity to improve my limited botanical knowledge and, during a break in the meeting, asked when a plant should be considered to be a species and when just a subspecies or a variety. 'A taxon is a species when an authoritative botanist says so', was the answer, with a smile, of our host. 'And what, if another authoritative botanist has a different opinion?'. The reply was 'Then there is a learned discussion between the two authoritative botanists'.

Considering that I am not at all an authoritative botanist but just a keen amateur plants-man, my perplexity in tackling the genus Paeonia can be easily understood. Nevertheless, for over 20 years I have lived with peonies and had the opportunity of observing them not only in cultivation but also in the wild. This situation is unusual with tree peonies considering that, since the beginning of this century when Reginald Farrer was guided to the plants by their 'celestial fragrance' until my first peony expedition in 1990, there is no written record of P. suffruticosa Andrews having been seen in the wild by a westerner.

That I was able to retrace the tree peonies in the wild, is due to the guide on my expeditions, Hong Tao, a distinguished professor of taxonomy in the Chinese Academy of Forestry in Beijing, who was able to mobilize the local foresters who knew where to find these plants.

The problem is that tree peonies or, if we refer to the classification of F.C. Stern, section Moutan DC., grow in the wild only in. restricted, remote mountainous areas of China, formerly often closed to foreigners. Moreover, the roots of tree peonies are much sought after for traditional Chinese medicine, so a tree peony in the wild has little chance of surviving undisturbed.

Last May, in my recent second peony expedition, I found that the situation of tree peonies in the wild had dramatically deteriorated since 1990. When you ask for an explanation of this deterioration the answer is 'Peasants, you cannot stop them'. But I could not understand why Moutan peonies had survived the predations of Chinese peasants for thousands of years and are only now in real danger of total destruction. However, it became clear recently when I heard from a forester in Jishan (Shanxi) that when an article on wild peonies in the Niu Nian Shan was published in a national newspaper, the State Company for Pharmaceuticals immediately sent its agents to buy the roots. In 1993, 15,000 kg of wild peony roots were collected in Jishan County, which means that not less than 15,000 peonies were destroyed just in that area: it is easy to understand that at this 'rate peonies in the wild will rapidly disappear.

On one hand the Chinese Government issues instructions for the conservation of native peonies but on the other hand, the State Company is paying a high price for the collection of moutan roots (US$2 per kg, the average income for a peasant being less than US$30 a month). Would it not be better both for the conservation of peonies and for insuring a permanent income for peasants if the State Company promoted their cultivation? We saw thousands of hectares of cultivated tree peonies in Anhui province, mainly for pharmaceutical use, and we noticed that the peasants involved in cultivating this crop were much better off than the average peasant. Why not extend this cultivation? With the cooperation of Chinese friends we are promoting an appeal on this subject and we will be glad to receive the support and assent of everyone concerned.

In this situation the opportunity to observe moutan peonies in the wild is increasingly rare. This is not so for the subsection Delavayanae F.C. Stern: in Yunnan in the mountains northwest of Lijiang, Paeonia delavayi Franchet, P. lutea Delavay and P. potaninii Komarov can be seen without great difficulty and they correspond exactly to their scientific descriptions. However, nobody in recent years has seen peonies belonging to subsection Vaginatae F.C. Stern in the wild which correspond to the original description of P. suffruticosa. Indeed, in western botanical literature, this subsection comprises just one species, P. suffruticosa, with two infraspecific taxa (var. spontanea Rehder and 'Rock's Variety'). These were given sub-specific status by Haw & Lauener (1990), being designated respectively subsp. spontanea (Rehder) S.G. Haw & L.A. Lauener and subsp. rockii S.G. Haw & L.A. Lauener.

This is the situation in the genus Paeonia section Moutan, as represented in western botanical literature. Under the guidance of Professor Hong Tao, we found a tree peony in the mountains of the autonomous prefecture of Barkam (on some maps written Markam) in Sichuan, under the protection of some old Tibetan castles (all peonies are very selective in choosing their residence!). The plants corresponded in every detail to Paeonia szechuanica, as described by the late Dr Fang Wenpei, Professor of Systematic Botany in the Sichuan University (Fang, 1958: 315). It is a real gem of the Chinese flora with almost translucent foliage, and fully deserves to be cultivated in our gardens: it could be a marvellous parent for new crosses to enrich our flower legacy. I have never found it mentioned in western literature.

The second tree peony, again found in 1990, had simple white flowers, petals sometimes with pinkish veins, purplish red filaments, stigma and disk, lanceolate or ovate-lanceolate leaves, and only the apical leaflet sometimes lobed, glabrous on both sides, and often with small tufts of hairs at the leaflet-base. I did not actually see this plant in the wild: I saw it in Zhengzhou (Henan) cultivated in the Arboretum of Rare and Endangered Trees and Woody Plants of the Zhengzhou Institute of Aeronautical Industrial Management. The Director of the Arboretum, Mr Zhang Jiaxun, had in December 1970, collected 400 plants in the wild, in the Song County (Henan) at an altitude of 1,100 metres. Recently, instructed by the Province Government to re-find these peonies, he started to search for it with the help of the local foresters but without success: the plants had been totally destroyed by their collection for medical use!

In the itinerary of my second expedition, last April, we stayed in Anhui in order to see this plant in the wild: my guides took me near to Tongling where I saw more than 1,000 hectares of this peony cultivated, at the foot of the Phoenix Mountain. But I was not able to see it in the wild. The plant is called 'Phoenix White' (there is another cultivar called 'Phoenix Pink') and I was told that until a few years ago, this peony still existed in the Phoenix Mountain from which the cultivar name was derived. I was also taken to the Xianren Dong ('Immortal's Cave'), not far from Chaohu where, on a precipitous cliff about 100 metres high, a peony of this kind is flourishing. In 198.4, some ideograms signifying 'miracle on the rocks' were carved just below this plant, and many thousands of people make the pilgrimage (and pay admittance) to see it. Local people consider that this plant is a remnant of a large population present on the mountain in the past.

The specimens, collected in the Zhengzhou Arboretum in 1990, were thoroughly examined by Hong Tao who concluded that this taxon was a new species. In cooperation with J.X. Zhang he named it P. ostii (Hong et al., 1992: 223).

Hong Tao also studied the phylogenetic relationship between P. ostii and many of the cul-tivars commonly grown in Chinese gardens: he identified 16 cultivars which had originated from this species. The most widespread is 'Phoenix White', because it is a very vigourous plant: not only is the plant itself vigourous, but in the roots are especially so, and thus it is the peony most often cultivated for medicinal use. It is a very hardy plant: I have seen it flourish under extreme and very different climatic conditions, with temperatures as high as 40°C in summer and -27°C in winter or, as in Anhui, with a very temperate climate, with 350 or 1,300 mm of annual rainfall. I have in my garden a seedling from Zhengzhou and a 'Phoenix White' both prosperous and healthy. A friend of mine, infected by my pe6ny mania, imported recently more than 1,000 'Phoenix White' and 'Phoenix Pink' and the majority of plants bloomed in the first spring, a few months after their long journey from China, barerooted!

The third peony to which I was introduced in the mountains of China was the very well-known Joseph Rock peony ('Rock's Variety'). In 1990 I saw it in the mountains of the Tai Bai Shan in Shaanxi, near the Hao Ping Forestry station at 1,100 metres. I needed authorization to go there because the area was forbidden to signers, but I had to wait so long for this horization that by the time it was granted I nd the plants had already bloomed. wever, I saw some flowers on plants which had been cultivated near the Forestry House.

Last May, together with Hong Tao and the photographer Josh Westrich, I saw three flowering plants of 'Rock's Variety' (elevated by Hong Tao and Li to the level of species - P. rockii (Haw & Lauener) Hong &: Li - in 1992) in the wild in the same spot. We again saw this peony, also in the wild in the Baokang District, Hubei province, on the Chen Zhong Ping Plateau at 1,700 metres. These plants had leaves quite different from the usual P. rockii, more lanceolate or narrowly ovate, and always entire, not lobate. Hong Tao and I decided to classify it as a new subspecies and it was formally described as P. rockii subsp. linyanshanii Hong & Osti (Hong & Osti, 1994: 237).

In Gansu I again saw P. rockii in many peasant's gardens and the vice-president of the Chinese Peony Society, Mr Li Jiajue, told me that in Gansu there are still plants of this species in the wild. Unfortunately, to get there it was necessary to undertake a trek there and back of not less than 12 days and we were already at the end of our expedition. We saw some plants also in the Jone (Choni) lamasery (which is called the Chanding Temple), at 2,600 metres, in Gansu province along the river Tao, the first place where Joseph Rock collected the seed, but as the original lamasery was destroyed during the war, those plants must surely be later replacements for the old ones.

There are certain differences between the plants we saw in Tai Bai Shan and the usual peonies cultivated as 'Rock's Variety' in our gardens, but there are differences also between the original plants raised from the seed sent by Rock and cultivated in F.C. Stern's garden at Highdown (Sussex) and in the Arnold Arboretum in Boston. And there are differences also between the peonies of Tai Bai Shan, of the Baokang District and of Gansu. Maybe an authoritative botanist will some day produce a sensible classification. I agree completely (and as far as I know all peony specialists consent) with Professor Hong Tao's classification of this peony as P. rockii and its subspecies linyanshanii and leave all the other problems to better qualified professionals.

In my last expedition I met another peony in the wild, that is near Jishan, in Shanxi, on the Ma Jia Gou Mountains. The first record of the discovery of a tree peony in that area goes back to 1970. Specimens were collected and sent to the Herbaria of Academia Sinica, Kew and the Arnold Arboretum. Stephen Haw identified it as P. suffruticosa var. spontanea Rehder and in his later study with Lauener raised it to the status of subspecies, as already mentioned (Haw & Lauener, 1990). It is a lovely peony, with simple white flowers which are smaller than those of the other species already mentioned. Also the plant is smaller and in some ways-frail-looking, but I do not know whether this is a consequence of the ruthless search for medicinal uses or a characteristic of this peony, as I was told by the foresters. They tried both to raise it from seed and to transplant some specimens but without success. Some Chinese botanists consider that this peony should be raised to the level of species and everybody agrees that P. suffruticosa was first described on the basis of a plant which was a hybrid cultivar. In 1992, Hong Tao and W.Z. Zhao agreed that it was a new species which they published as P. jishanensis (Hong et al., 1992: 225), but this year, having reconsidered the evidence, they decided that it should retain Rehder's varietal epithet spontanea, but at the level of species. Therefore it was published (Hong & Osti, 1994: 238) as P. spontanea (Rehder) Hong & W.Z. Zhao (see p. 247).

Finally in both the expeditions made with Hong Tao, I visited the Mountain of 10,000 Flowers, the reserve in Shaanxi near Yan'an, where President Mao established his headquarters after the Long March. In that area thousands of tree peonies have been cultivated from time immemorial and in some pavilions there are paintings which depict the legend of the origin of peonies, showing how they arose from the union of two beautiful fairies with two sturdy peasants.

Although I did not see any new species, there were many beautiful hybrids of the local peonies, more or less naturalized in the park under the canopy of a Thuya orientalis wood and we were able to identify 16 new cultivars.

The above is an account of peonies I have seen in the wild in China. But although my expeditions were carefully prepared by Chinese friends and experts, I was unable to see everything and it is my firm belief that a real clarification of the genus Paeonia can only be reached by Chinese botanists who have better and easier access to the relevant material.

The opinions set out in these notes is in agreement with all the Chinese botanists interested in peonies I have met.

I have two further observations:

1. Subsection Delavayanae: Chinese botanists consider that the three species accepted by western botanists are just one: P. delavayi, P. lutea and P. potaninii are varieties. This is confirmed by what happened in the garden of Norman Hadden near Porlock, Somerset (Bean, 1988: 351) where seed of P. delavayi produced almost pure P. lutea, and by what I saw in Yunnan, where you see in the wild every possible mixture of this peonies side by side. Moreover I have also grown in my garden all these peonies from seed of the same plant.

2. In a recent doctoral dissertation by a Chinese botanist, Pei Yanlong (I am indebted to S.G. Haw for the English translation of the abstract), the author raised a red-flowered peony from Shennongjia to the species level and gave it the name P. quii. It has biternate leaves usually with no more than nine leaflets, which are oblong or narrowly oblong and more or less entire. Its flowers are rather small, red or rose-pink, unblotched, and have a purple floral disk which completely envelops the carpels.

In conclusion, apart from P. quii, five taxa of tree peony are recognized as species at present i.e. P. delavayi, P. spontanea, P. szechuanica, P. rockii and P. ostii (see p. 247).


I thank the following for their help: Stephen Haw, Hong Tao (Chinese Academy of Forestry), Hong De-yuan (Academia Sinica) and Sir Peter Smithers. Thanks are also due to Luca Palermo for the use of his beautiful paintings, to Luigi Antonelli who photographed them, and to Josh Westrich for his photographs taken in China.


Bean, W.J. 1988. Trees and shrubs hardy in the British Isles, Supplement. John Murray, London.

Fang, W. 1958. Notes on Chinese Paeonies. Acta Phytotaxonomica Sinica 7(4): 297-323.

Haw, S.G. & Lauener, L.A. 1990. A review of the infraspecific taxa of Paeonia suffruticosa Andrews. Edinburgh Journal of Botany 47:273-281.

Hong, T., Zhang, J.X., li, J.J., Zhao, W.Z., & Li, M.R. 1992. Study on the Chinese wild woody peonies I: new taxa of Paeonia L. sect. Moutan DC. Bulletin of Botanical Research, Harbin 12(3):223-234.

Hong, T. & Osti, G.L. 1994. Study on the Chinese wild woody peonies II: new taxa of Paeonia L. sect. Moutan DC. Op. Cit. 14(3): 237-240.

Rivière, M. 1992. Le Monde Fabuleux des Pivoines. Crest.

Stern, F.C. 1946. A study of the genus Paeonia. Royal Horticultural Society, London.

Wister, J.C. (ed.) 1962. The peonies. American Horticultural Society, Washington, DC.

Gian Lupo Osti, Via M. Marcati 17/A, 00197 Roma, Italy

Editor's Note. Paeonia jishanensis Hong Tao & W.Z. Zhao was first described at species level in 1992. When they raised var. spontanea Rehder to species level in 1994, and assigned this name to the taxon, Hong & Zhao created a superfluous name. In accordance with Article 11,3 of the International Code of Botanical Nomenclatur (1988) which states „For any taxon below the rank of genus, the correct name ist the combination of the final epithet of the earliest legitimate name of the taxon of the same rank, with the correct name of the species to which is assigned“the name P. jishanensis must stand because it was the first name to be published at species rank. Paeonia spontanea is an incorrect substitute which cannot be accepted, and therefore becomes a synonyme.

The new Plantsman vol. 1, 4:195-205,247 (1994)