In Chinese, chun jie, the word for the traditional lunar new year, means “spring festival.” Though it is still very much winter in northern and central China, the new year heralds the slow awakening of spring. Traditionally the holiday is celebrated by families with mountains of dumplings, and large arsenals of fireworks. Another tradition is ‘forcing’ tree peonies to bloom in time for the New Year. In China, tree peonies represent prosperity and achievement as well as tokens of love. A blooming tree peony not only injects some much needed color into the winter days, but is also a wish for good fortune in the new year.

Forcing tree peonies to bloom in the winter is done by potting up plants in the fall and gradually raising the temperatures in a greenhouse over the course of about two months. There is a very large market in China for forced tree peonies. Businesses display blooming peonies at their offices, and people give potted plants as gifts to friends and family. City governments and universities also put on large public exhibitions of forced tree peonies. A grower we know in China said that his nursery alone forces more than 10,000 plants for the holiday. He estimated that overall about 1,000,000 potted tree peonies are forced to bloom in time for sale during the Spring Festival.

Budded tree peonies in a greenhouse about a week away from opening.

Unfortunately, the roots of these tree peonies have been severely trimmed to fit in these small pots. They will need to be transplanted into the ground or much larger containers for long-term survival. It will take many years before the plants are able to produce this many blossoms again.

Peonies in the winter!

In order to preserve the blossoms, they are wrapped in newspaper for transport.

This exhibition for the 2011 Spring Festival at the Institute of Botany at the Chinese Academy of Sciences feature over fifty different varieties of tree peonies.

Spring is coming!