Carsten Burkhardt's Web Project Paeonia - The Peony Library

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Paeonia-Literatur 2006

Peony rockii and Gansu Mudan

Will McLewin Dezhong Chen










This book is about a group of shrubby peonies, Gansu Mudan, that are still relatively unknown and somewhat mysterious although they are becoming popular and more readily available. There would be little point in it if their appearance was unexceptional and their cultivation difficult, but the reverse is true. They are undemanding in their requirements and are magnificent and spectacular flowering shrubs.

In writing about them we have three aims. The first is to make clear the wide range of forms and colours that exist, to give the correct names of individual cultivars and to explain that they are easy to grow successfully. In short to demystify them and in doing so to establish Gansu Mudan as the correct name for them as a group, with Paeonia Gansu Group as their formal collective name.

The second aim is to record that the creation of this group of plants is almost entirely due to the inspiration and effort of one man, Chen Dezhong, and to celebrate his achievement in developing a versatile and hugely significant new group of woody peonies that are without doubt destined to become widespread and rightly very popular.

The third aim is to provide an accurate account of the hybrid plants loosely known as 'Rock's peony', to make clear that they are examples of Gansu Mudan and in doing so separate them from the true wild species plant P. rockii.

At the same time, by giving more attention to the general question of names and the use of common terms we hope to raise awareness of such matters and encourage greater care and precision in their use.








It may seem perverse to begin a book with chapters of rather difficult prose on what might seem to be arcane topics and with equally arcane discussion of what might seem to be perfectly familiar words (likewise an introduction). As accurate names and correct usage of them is an important part of this book, the beginning is the logical place to put the relevant chapters, and in any case we do not expect anybody to get to grips with Section 1 or even Chapter 1 before looking at pictures in Section 3. We have no concerns about including sentences and extended passages that need to be read twice or several times for their meaning and purpose to be clear. We are happy to trust the reader to do that and not to be put off. Frequently, for clarification or to avoid an implication that is not intended, parenthetical qualifying additions have to be made, either in brackets or between commas, in sentences that are already long. The previous sentence to this one is an example. Omitting them at a second reading and then putting them back will often be helpful.

The three main sections are very different in style and content and can be regarded as independent of each other. Certainly each could exist, in different contexts, without the other two. The same is true to some extent of individual Chapters. To help this stand alone aspect of the different parts there is a bit of repetition, here and there, of some information. As by far the greater part of information in this book is not culled from other sources but is first hand experience of the authors the usual list of references is absent. Where we think some are necessary or helpful they appear at the ends of the chapters concerned.

We know only part of the whole picture of course. This does not distinguish us from other authors, but we are at least aware of it and conscious that the most important thing to know is what you do not know.

There are several minor problems of presentation which are best dealt with here.

It is traditional to use an italic font for what are called scientific names of plants. 'Scientific' is somewhat inappropriate because plant classification and naming, although it increasingly uses modern science and technology, is not very scientific, possibly for perfectly good reasons. 'Scientific' in this context really means formal, or 'not common', or universal, this last being the crucial point. 'Scientific' names (in botany) are made universal by restricting them to Latin. As this is a 'dead' language not used anywhere for everyday communication this seems to us distinction enough and we are not aware of any ambiguity that would result from not writing them in italic. Nevertheless, for the most part we adhere to this convention. There are other conventions that we have not followed. Most readers will not notice their absence; those that do will have no difficulty coping without them, which seems to us reason enough for not adhering to them.

Another occasional problem occurs where an everyday word has been given a special meaning in botanical nomenclature. Here it is 'group'. Botanical nomenclaturists will point out that the upper case G distinguishes a 'group of plants' from a 'plant Group'. We hope that our comments in Chapter 1 will not make matters worse.

Chinese words or at least their pinyin version are also somewhat problematic. Pinyin is the modern, official way to transcribe (or represent) Chinese in the Latin alphabet. Official in the sense both of formally designated and approved by the Chinese government for general purposes on the one hand, and by the International Codes of Plant Nomenclature for plant names on the other.








Although two names only appear as authors this book is, to a considerable extent, a collaborative endeavour by all the people in it. Help and advice has been freely and generously given and it is a great pleasure for us to acknowledge this. The presiding spirit has been the celebration of Gansu Mudan and our affection for, our delight in, and our excitement with these plants, emotions that characterise the work on them at the three nurseries involved. The feeling of cooperating in something bigger than all of us has been profound, indeed moving at times and a great pleasure to be part of.

We are indeed fortunate and delighted that the book is graced with wonderful paintings by Margaret Walty which, while being botanically accurate in minute detail, have also captured a hint of traditional Chinese paintings of peonies.

The photographs, with a few exceptions, have not been taken specifically for use in the book. Rather they have been chosen from 'the photographs we have'. A few are not particularly good examples of photographs but that does not matter, they are adequate to illustrate and add to and illuminate the text. Most have been taken by Chen Fuhui, a lot by Coralie Christiani and some by Will McLewin, Chen Dezhong, Robert Pardo and Hu Xiaoling. Some of the information comes from Chen Dezhong's little book (in Chinese) on Ziban Mudan. There are a few places where other sources are involved that are obvious and acknowledged but the vast majority of the information is pooled first hand experience of people in the book. This is not a book trawled from other accounts and articles and other people's experience or, in its absence, their assumptions. Chapter 5 is a reminder of the perils of that approach. That chapter took a long time and would have been much less complete without the painstaking investigative work contributed by Chris Sanders. Our cooperation with him to determine the truth about 'Rock's peony became an adventure, both exciting and frustrating in turn, and involved many earnest discussions about, in some cases, ever smaller points of detail or their implications. Hu Xiaoling and Chen Fuhui made major contributions to assembling and organising the contents, responding promptly and patiently whenever help was needed.

On the practical side of actually producing the book we found again generous help from friends. We greatly appreciate Professor Gil Strang's willingness to have this book sitting alongside his erudite and illuminating mathematics texts at Wellesley-Cambridge Press. We expected that producing the final computer discs for printing would be troublesome and stressful. Instead Matthias Thomsen designed and produced the elegant version that you see swiftly and calmly.

A source of encouragement throughout was the assurance of another friend, Roger Handley, who said from the beginning that the actual printing could be safely left in his hands and he was right. After some considerable complications with assembling parts of the contents, to have the last two stages accomplished with such panache and expertise was a truly joyful experience.

Alf Coombs, Andy Firth, Jack Garside, Nigel Titley, Andy Johnson and others listed at the end of Chapter 5 all provided bits of help at different times. So too did Irmtraud and Gottlob Rieck whose consistent encouragement we are glad to acknowledge. Irmtraud and Gottlob are largely responsible for Strauchpfingstrosen (2002), Ulmer, the best general book on mudan that we know of, but inexplicably still available only in German.

Errors, omissions and infelicities are our responsibility. Will McLewin and Chen Dezhong, Stockport and Lanzhou, 200611