Paeonia suffruticosa

Paeonia suffruticosa (340)

Common names:

  • Chinese Tree Peony
  • Moutan peony

Location in the Gardens:

  • Throughout the Gardens

Season of interest:

  • late spring, early summer - flowers and foliage

Description of plant:

Flowers are bisexual opening the end of May, very large compared with the other species, 6"-12" across. They are also variable in colour - rose, pink or white; cup shaped, single or semi-double and each in-curving petal may have a basal chocolate - maroon blotch.

It is these flower components which distinguish the plants from each other and which are the basis of classification. At present there are at least 600 Chinese tree peony cultivars.

Ideal growing conditions and habitat:

Tree peonies are very hardy. However, the foliage and flower buds can be damaged by late frost so avoid frost pockets. They prefer neutral, humus rich soils, but they tolerate acid or slightly alkaline soils. Also, choose a sunny/lightly shaded, sheltered position to prevent wind damage to branches and large blooms, with good drainage.

In Highdown Garden they are planted in very chalky soil and half shade among deciduous trees for spring frost protection. Here the growth comes later, avoiding frost and cold winds and their flowers last longer. They do not like strong manure but benefit from some old leaf mould as a mulch.

Country of origin:

  • China: on Moutan Shan in the Province of Shensi, in Kansu and possibly Szechuan. Now it has become exceedingly rare anywhere in the wild

Highdown history:

The wild plant was not in cultivation till Dr. J.F. Rock sent seed back to Arnold Arboretum in 1926. The Arboretum distributed the seed and one plant was sent to us [Stern, Highdown Garden] in 1936. When it flowered in1938, it seemed to tally exactly with the wild plants described by Farrer. In Kansu, Farrer had found these tree peonies in 1914, he collected no seed or dried specimens but his description also tallied with the 1698 Chinese description concerning the scent. At the time of writing, after 20 years this plant was H.9' and S 10' and its seed has been raised and found to come true.

Stern commenced a correspondence with Dr. Rock, who was still living in China, about the authenticity of this wild seed. He replied:

“The seeds of the Paeonia about which you enquire I collected from plants which grew in the Yamen of the Choni Lamasery (elevation 8,500 feet) in SW Kansu. I occupied the Yamen in that Lamasery for about a year. In the court of the Yamen grew a very beautiful single-flowered Paeonia. There were no double-flowered ones, all were single. I remarked at the time that it looked like a wild species. The Lamas told me it came from Kansu but from which exact locality they did not know. I never came across it in the wild state. It has been kept for years in the Lamasery. I took the photo of it growing in the court and I enclose a copy with my compliments. The Lamasery has been entirely destroyed and the Lamas all killed in 1928 ... so the plant in all probability, does not exist any more, as the entire Lamasery was burnt to the ground”.

Stern continues:

“may be interesting to record that seeds of the Paeony kindly sent to me by Mr. K. McDovall of Logan were sent to Dr. J. F. Rock in China to replace the plants destroyed in the Lamasery at Choni, and were safely received by him. So let us hope, the Paeony will again bloom in the lamasery in years to come to bring peace and joy to the monks”.

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