Its Peony Time in China!


The 31st annual Peony Festival opened in Luoyang on April 1st 2013. This ancient city, located in the center of Henan province, about 500 miles southwest of Beijing, served as the capital of China during many dynasties. At Cricket Hill Garden, we have imported some of our tree peony stock from Luoyang since the late 1980s, and have benefited enormously from the willingness of growers there to share their expertise in the cultivation of these spectacular plants. We hear from our friends there that the weather has cooperated this year and that the natural bloom of peonies in the field will be from April 10th to 25th.  In 1999, 2000, 2005 and 2008 we were extremely fortunate to be able to see the tree peonies in full bloom in Luoyang. We hope that you will enjoy the pictures of our trips there and that it serves as a tantalizing preview of the peony bloom to come closer to home.

There are several public tree peony garden in Luoyang. Perhaps the most famous is the Wangcheng Park. This formerly private garden is said to be built on the site of a prince’s ancient palace.

Over the last decade many new peony gardens have been constructed in Luoyang.

The spectacular Longmen caves outside of Luoyang were carved by Buddhist monks beginning in the 5th century CE. A visit to Luoyang must include some time at this awe-inspiring site.

Though this year only marks the 31st anniversary of the modern Peony Festival in Luoyang, tree peonies have been grown there for over 1400 years. Tradition tells us that peonies first arrived in Luoyang in the Tang Dynasty during the reign of Empress Wu (690-705 CE). Remembered even today as a mercurial ruler, she is said to have ordered all of the flowers to bloom for her birthday. The tree peonies alone disobeyed her edict, and for that offense were banished from the splendors of the Imperial Gardens in capital Chang’an (modern Xian). As punishment, the tree peonies were exiled to Luoyang. There, in continued defiance of the imperial will, they flourished. Improved breeding and cultivation techniques over hundreds of years led to the development of hybrids in the multitude of colors and shapes that are still grown today.

When we fist visited Luoyang, we were very surprised to see how little organic matter there is in the soil. In fact, peonies thrive in this highly mineral loess soil, composed of silt deposited from flooding of the Yellow River. The samples we took from peony growing fields had a pH of 7.2 and were very high in calcium as well as other minerals.

When we first visited Luoyang, the color and size of flowers astonished us. We still strive to match such bountiful blooms in our own garden.

In the Song Dynasty, about a hundred and fifty years after Empress Wu banished the tree peonies to Luoyang, the scholar and official Ouyang Xiu wrote a treatise on the unsurpassed beauty of the peonies there. His Tree Peonies of Luoyang deals extensively with the methods of cultivation of the merits of named cultivars grown there.

Using technology not much changed since the time of Ouyang Xiu, a worker uses a cultivating tool constructed out of an old bicycle to cut up small weeds in a nursery bed.

Luoyang continues to be an important center for tree peony research and breeding. Shown here is the ‘gene bank’ of the wild species Peonia ostii.

In China, peonies are often planted in blocks by cultivar. This produces a striking visual effect.

Ouyang writes that “in the spring all the residents of [Luoyang], whether high-ranking or lowly, wear them in their hair. Even laborers carrying things through the street on poles do this. When the flowers first blossom, gentlemen and commoners alike rush to go view them.” We easily recognize this infatuation with the flowers. Each spring, the peonies cast this irresistible allure on all who behold them.

Peony princess of Luoyang.

The Peony Festival is a very festive time with young and old all reveling in the beauty of the flowers.

Trying to capture the essence of an ephemeral flower, while also avoiding the hot spring sun of north China.

The flowers are also shaded from the strong spring sun to prolong the bloom.

Ouyang Xiu describes in his treatise Luoyang as a city in the grips of peony mania, where intoxicated residents were willing to pay exorbitant prices for highly prized cultivars. Today tree peonies are still known in Luoyang as ‘bai liang jin’ or ‘one hundred ounces of gold,’ the price for the most sought after varieties during the height of the peony mania of the Tang dynasty. Unwitting out-of-towners, unfamiliar with peony growing, but also under their spell of their blossoms, paid enormous sums of money for dead plants which had their roots boiled. This was done to ensure that Luoyang would continue to have a monopoly on the beauty of these flowers.

Cricket Hill Garden’s David Furman with Luoyang peony grower Wu Jingxu in his growing fields.

The people of Luoyang no longer so jealously guard their peonies, which are rightly, still held in such high regard. Many of the classic varieties of Chinese tree peonies originate from Luoyang. Perhaps most famous is ‘Luoyang Red’, one of our all time favorite varieties. Today, the main boulevard of downtown Luoyang is planted with spectacular specimens of ‘Luoyang Red’. We take great pride in the fact it also flourishes in our garden as well as in those of hundreds of our customers in America.

‘Luoyang Red’ blooming in our Peony Heaven at Cricket Hill Garden.

Over the next few weeks as the tree peony bloom begins in China, we will be posting new pictures of various gardens and sites of peony cultivation there, so be sure to check back soon.