(154-155) Histories of the Tree Peonies
The Chinese Type
THE NAME of the Moutan tree peony is derived from the Chinese Mow tan, or Muh tang, or Mew tang. It grows in northwestern China ordinarily from three to six feet and has occasionally been reported up to ten feet in the wild. The wild plant became known only in 1910. There is practically no literature about this wild form, yet botanical, horticultural, artistic, poetic, medical, and historical references, designs, and paintings go back at least to 536 A.D. and refer to garden forms originated by the Chinese. Even the most ancient authors refer to its as a flower long cultivated.
The ancient Chinese called the tree peony the "King of Flowers," and some of them apparently believed that older generations of Chinese had actually produced the tree peony from the herbaceous peony by their gardening skill. Much was written about their supposed medicinal value and some authors state that only after the year 600 were the plants widely grown as ornamentals. By 750 there were known, and described, thirty named varieties. (For this and other numbered references, see Appendix, Page 201.) There were ancient accounts of flowers, yellow, blue, violet and black, selling at fantastic prices like "one hundred ounces of gold."
Whether these colors were the fabric of the imagination, or obtained by the use of dyes, is not known.
The first embassy of the Dutch East India Company to China traveled from Canton to Peking in 1656. One of its members (2) later wrote about the trip and described the tea plants and pineapples. He described also tree peonies as being like roses but without thorns and twice as large, in color mostly white with a little purple, but also yellow (?) and red(?). No one seems to have taken this story seriously until more than a hundred years later. Then, Sir Joseph Banks of Kew, having seen Chinese drawings, read the account and engaged a Mr. Duncan, a "medical gentleman," attached to the British East India Company, to procure a plant (3). This man procured a plant in Canton in 1787. The impression at that time was that the plants grew wild near Canton, but later it was reported (4) that they were grown by gardeners in mountainous regions nearly a thousand miles awav, and shipped by river boat in open baskets without soil. In Canton they were potted and sold, the price depending, like modern Easter Lilies, on the number of flower buds per plant. After flowering; they were thrown awav as they would not thrive in the hot climate of Canton where they would have no winter rest.
The Canton plant sent by Mr. Duncan to Kew, or a second plant received in 1789 by Sir Joseph Banks and planted at Spring Grove, Isleworth, about ten miles from London, was named Paeonia moutan banksi. In 1829, it was reported to be eight feet high and ten feet across. It was very double, magenta or purplish red at the center fading to light pink at the edges. The original plant lived until 1842 when it was destroyed during a building operation. Other varieties reached Kew in 1794 and 1797, one a semi-double deep rose pinkf.
In 1802, Capt. James Prendergast of the Hope, brought from China a single or semi-double white with large purple spots at the base. It flowered in the garden of Sir Abraham Hume of Wormley Bury, Herts., in 1806(7). Botanists considered it to be the true species and they called it P. papaveracea (8), and later P. moutan papaveracea, not, as is commonly supposed, on account of its resemblance to the flower of a poppy, but because one of its microscopic parts resembled the seed vessel of the common European poppy. True to the botanists' habit of changing names, in time. P.moutan Banksi became P. moutan papaveracea Banksi. By whatever name, the older tree peonies proved good growers in (158-159) England.
Sabine (9) in 1826 reported a twenty-four-year old plant seven feet high, forty feet in circumference, producing 660 flowers, of which 130 were disbudded to increase the size of those remaining. The plant at Wormley Bury, by 1835, was reported to be fourteen feet in diameter and to have borne 320 flowerk In 1940, when Major A. Pam owned the property, there were flowers on an old plant that was believed to be part of the original plant, or a seedling of it. These reports do not seem to bear out later British complaints about the extreme difficulty in growing the plant in the English climate, such as William Watson's remark in 1890 that the plants die a foot for every six inches they grow (10).
In the early 1800's, the plants sold for about ten guineas apiece, but by 1825 there were quotations at one guinea and in 1836 at three and one-half shillings. It is not known whether these were for additional importations or for home grown plants, but, after 1817, no startling new varieties seem to have been mentioned until the time of Fortune.
There seems to have been great dissatisfaction during this period with the attitude or behavior of the Chinese exporters. Hovey(11) said that the Chinese were so selfish about all the plants they possessed that they did not wish any foreigners to have them. He said thev deliberately substituted inferior varieties for those they had agreed to sell, even when they had as many or even more plants of better varieties.
Nurseries on the continent imported plants from China during the first half of the century and raised seedlings to which they gave long Latin names or the names equally unpronounceable and unspellable of patrons of the
arts. Among these nurseries were Baumann, Noisette, Mathieu, His, Makoy, and Seneclause. Further details about these are to be found in the American Peony Society's 1944 Tree Peony Check List.
An interesting sidelight on the period concerns a Belgian amateur (12) who sowed seed in 1823, and in 1836 produced a flower so magnificent that he named it 'Gloria Belgarum.' He was so vain that he showed it only to his most intimate friends and so selfish that he did not want any to have propagations from it. He was reported to have kept two "enormous" dogs on guard over the plant night and day for nearly thirty years, but apparently, in spite of this, some scions were stolen and the plant was available in nurseries about 1861.
Robert Fortune, the great explorer of the Royal Horticultural Society, made four trips to China and introduced many fine plants to England. In 1846, he brought twenty-five of the finest tree peonies ever to come out of China. Among these were 'Atrosanguinea,' 'Berenice,' 'Bijou de Chusan,' 'Dr. Bowring,' 'Globosa,' 'Glory of Shanghai," 'Lord Macartney," 'Pride of Hongkong,' 'Robert Fortune,' 'Samarang,' and 'Zenobia.' These were enthusiastically received and quickly propagated, so that both British and continental nurseries cataloged them in some quantity in the 1860's.
Certain disappointments were noted. The "Black Peony" wasn't black but a deep purple. The Wistaria-blue variety was a very ordinary lilac color. The slow propagation kept prices high, which checked the distribution of the plants. Some of them lacked vigor, but even so it was the best collection of varieties of the time and infinitely better than the early importations. It
made up for the many disappointments of earlier shipments on which the roots had been too severely cut. Writers intimated that the exporters did not want the plants to live and that they even scalded seeds before selling them to foreigners.
Up to the time of Fortune's trip, the Chinese had sold hundreds of so-called distinct varieties, which, when they bloomed, proved to be the same five or six first imported between 1787 and 1810. Fortune's collection was the finest ever brought from China. There is apparently no record of any other Chinese garden varieties having been imported up to the time of the publication of the Peony Manual. Since then, Japanese nurseries have offered "rare" or "new" Chinese varieties. They had new names at least, but, when they bloomed in this country, proved identical with the importations of long ago.
The 1860's, 1870's and 1880's were the years of the greatest popularity of the Chinese varieties. In the 1860's, the German nursery, Haage & Schmidt, offered sixty-one varieties; in Holland, Krelage offered a hundred and ninety varieties; and in France, Verdier advertised twenty-five thousand plants in twenty varieties. In the 1870's, in Belgium, van Houtte listed one hundred and sixty-eight varieties; in Germany, Spaeth claimed three hundred and fifty varieties, but, unfortunately, the catalog did not give the names. In the 1890's, Paillet, near Paris, listed three hundred and thirty-seven kinds. Many of the catalogs stated that a large number of the finest varieties came from Italy, but whether they were raised there from seed or imported from China or Japan is not stated. Long searchings in the literature at the Arnold Arboretum, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, the New York Botanical Garden, and the United States Department of Agriculture Library have failed to bring to light any definite information on this subject.
One of the earliest and best articles on the whole subject was written in 1826 by Joseph Sabine (14). This was extensively plagiarized, or even copied word for word, without acknowledgment in the British, French, Belgian, and German gardening papers for nearly fifty years! Any additional remarks appearing in one of these papers seemed to go the rounds of the others in a few months. It was not a time of originality and the remarks seemed to travel in a cycle of (a) appreciation of beauty, (b) hope and prediction of great popularity, (c) astonishment that the plants are so little known, (d) remarks on danger of spring frosts, and (e) remarks on difficulties of propagation.
As the century drew to a close, the references became fewer and fewer. When the old growers died, the desire for large collections of Chinese tree peonies apparently died with them. The varieties they had grown with the possible exception of P. papaveracea had full double flowers. They were so heavy that the stems could not properly support them, with the result that many of the flowers were hidden under the foliage. In addition to the varieties already mentioned, there were being grown under European names, one white, 'Lambertine'; a few very beautiful salmon pinks and rose pinks such as 'Carolina d'ltalie,' 'Comte de Rambuteau,' 'Jeanne d'Arc,' 'Marquis de Clapiers,' 'Mme. Stuart Low,' and 'Mme. Victor Gillier'; a gorgeous rose red or cherry red, 'Reine Elizabeth'; and a fine deep purple, 'Souv. de (160-161) Ducher.'; There were also hundreds of lilac pinks, magenta pinks and plain magentas, most of which were very unattractive. Many closely resembled Banksi. Typical varieties were 'Archi-duc Ludovico,' 'Athlete,' 'Beaute de Twickel-,' 'Jules Pirlot,' 'La Ville de St. Denis,' 'Morris,' 'Princess Louis,' 'Reine Amelie,' 'Reine des Fleurs,' 'Triomphe de Vandermaelen,' and 'van Houttei.' All these varieties proved, in Holland and France, easy to propagate in comparison with the later introduced Japanese varieties. Which varieties bearing European names were actually raised from seed in Europe and which were Chinese varieties renamed is not too definitely established. The 1944 Tree Peony Check List contains all the available information
and shows at least which European nurseries gave the names and introduced the varieties. In the decade before World War I, Chinese or European types were being propagated by wholesalers in Orleans, France, and Boskoop, Holland, and sent to this country.
All this history refers to the garden varieties of Chinese origin, or their European raised seedlings. Nobody knew the exact home of the species. One report states that Hugh Scallan and Giuseppe Giraldi found the species growing wild in Shensi sometime between 1890 and 1896. They did not collect plants or seeds. Stern mentions a claim of discovery by a Doctor King in 1884 but thinks the plants may have been escapes from garden plants. In
'Shuchiuka' (Flower in Wine) is one of the most beautifully shaped and colored Japanese varieties. Delicate pink with deep pink slashes at the base of each petal
1896, Paul Bruhl either found similar
plants or reported on Doctor King's
discovery. In 1910, Purdom(-Z5;
[, found it. He sent a herbarium speci-
i men to the Arnold Arboretum which
' Rehder, in 1920, named P. suffruticosa
I variety spontanea. He sent seeds to
| Veitch in England and to Professor
| Sargent. About fifty seeds of the
I latter shipment germinated, but the
| young plants were destroyed by rats.
The Veitch Nursery raised a plant
which they sent later to Professor
Sargent. From this, a second herbari-
| urn specimen was made.
In 1914, Reginald ~Fzrrtr(16) found
plants of the wild white variety in
Kansu. In his book, On the Eaves of
: the World, (Edward Arnold and Com-
j Pany Publisher, London, 1926), he
wrote a most poetic account of them. He had reached a tiny village after a long trip and in the evening climbed the nearby wooded hills. There he rested and gazed "down the steep loess tracks to the little village so pleasant-looking in its grove of poplars, till my eye was caught by certain white objects farther along the hillside, that were clearly too big by far to be flowers . . . Through the foaming shallows of the copse I plunged, and soon was holding my breath with growing excitement as I neared my goal and it became more and more certain that I was setting eyes on Paeonia moutan as a wild plant. The event itself justified enthusiasm but all considerations of botanical geography vanish from one's mind in the first contemplation of that
'Hana-no-mikado,' Emperor of the Flowers, is a lilac rose double, which, though a Japanese variety, more closely resembles the double type grown by the Chinese
amazing flower, the most overpower-ingly superb of hardy shrubs. Here in the brushwood it grew up tall and slender and straight, in two or three unbranching shoots, each one of which carried at the top, elegantly balancing, that single enormous blossom, waved and crimped into the boldest grace of line, of absolute pure white, with featherings of deepest maroon radiating at the base of the petals from the base of golden fluff at the flower's heart. Above the sere of thorny scrub the snowy beauties poise and hover, and the breath of them went out in the twilight as sweet as any rose. For a long time I remained to worship, and returned downward at last in high contentment."
Further on Farrer stated "the Moutan is par excellence the national flower of China. There is hardly a house or abbey without a bush or two the Imperial Palaces revel in rows upon rows . . . arranged in narrow shallow terraces each just wide enough
for a single line of plants, and piled up one behind another till the effect of that towering long bank all ablaze must surpass the wildest imagination of the show bench ... I cannot but feel that in similar raised terraces the peonies might find better drainage and kindlier conditions in England where at present they still remain more loyally obedient to the wishes of their late Imperial mistress than do her other special favorites, the Palace doglings, one of whose special points, as laid down by Her Majesty's own hand, was that they should 'bite the foreign devils instantly.'"
Farrer wrote that in southern Kansu the tree peony was always white but that further north it was magenta. He believed further exploration would reveal wild types of other colors, but since his time, with the world in turmoil, this has not happened.
Stern reports seeing herbarium specimens in Paris, and at Kew, that had been collected by Abbe Licent and A. E. Pratt in Kansu and Shensi in 1922.
The main fact reported by all these explorers was that the plants grew in woodland on steep mountain sides. This now makes us comprehend the need for partial shade rather than full sun in our hot summers. As with herbaceous plants, the need for good drainage has long been understood.
About 1932, the explorer, J. F. Rock, collected in a Lamasery seeds of what he believed to be a wild peony from Kansu. The resulting plants flowered in America, Canada, Great Britain, and Sweden about 1938- They were like P. papaveracea of Andrews except that the sheaths enclosing the carpels were white, not purple. Apparently there have been no introductions of Moutan peonies from China since 1932.