More Heirloom Chinese Tree Peonies: 1964 PRC Stamp Series


In 1964 the Chinese post office printed a beautiful set of stamps which showcased some classical varieties of tree peonies. Just a few short years later Chairman Mao unleashed the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution on the Chinese people and such a celebration of traditional art and culture became impossible. How some the largest tree peony gardens managed to escape the ravages of ‘class struggle’  and the Red Guards is a fascinating story for another blog post.

When we first began to import tree peonies from China in the late 1980s these stamps were the most definitive reference we could find as a guide for choosing varieties. At the time there were no good English language sources on Chinese tree peonies. We even used the images from these stamps in our first illustrated catalog in 1993.

In the two decades since, we have test grown most of the classical varieties illustrated in the stamp series. While they have been celebrated for hundreds of years for their undeniable beauty we have found some of them fickle and relatively weak growers. Some of the more recently developed varieties make for more vigorous and gratifying garden specimens. Also, certain prized colors like yellow are idealized in in these stamps, while in reality the flower is quite paler in color.

Many varieties of Chinese tree peonies, including those featured in this stamp series  have been continuously cultivated for centuries. We help to continue this great and worthy tradition by selling only true to name varieties. Moreover, we try to explain the stories behind the names of individual cultivars. While a name adds nothing to the beauty of beholding a tree peony in bloom, to those interested, understanding it’s significance lends another layer of enjoyment in cultivating peonies. They are truly horti(cultural) artifacts.

Enjoy these beautiful images and the contrast between the artists renditions and the pictures taken in our garden. When available, we have tried to give some background information regarding the names of these cultivars. This research is a work in progress and any additional information which readers may be able to provide would be greatly appreciated.

Twin Beauty 二喬 er qiao

Twin Beauty is named after the Qiao sister in the historical epic, Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The two beautiful sisters were said to be “beauties whose faces would make fish forget to swim or birds to fly, abash the very blossoms and outshine the moon.” The warlord General Cao Cao coveted their affection and sought to capture them in order to place them in his Bronze Bird Tower; this intrigue was one of the main causes of the Battle of the Red Cliffs in 208-09 CE.

We have found this classical variety to be a fine addition to our peony collection. Depending on soil and fertilization conditions, flowers may bloom variegated, all pink or all red. We currently have Twin Beauty in stock for fall 2011 shipping (2/3 yr. old tree peony $89, 3/4 yr. old tree peony $125)

An exceptional interesting flower which is truly green. It is extremely slow to become established and flower; our specimen took over 10 years before it bloomed well.  While ‘Pea Green’ is unique, its ornamental appeal is debatable. A few years ago we had a cut flower in the refrigerator and an employee mistook it for a head of lettuce.

‘Pea Green’ in bloom at Cricket Hill Garden

Gejin’s Purple 葛巾紫 ge jin zi

In a Chinese folk story the peony spirit Gejin takes the  form of a beautiful women in order to wed a scholar who was enchanted by the tree peonies of Heze. When the husband became aware that his wife was an apparition, she and their children vanished. In the place of where the children had been, two peonies grew, one was purple and was named Gejin’s Purple.

For many years we erroneously translated this variety as “Purple Kudzu Scarf.” This is the literal translation of the three Chinese characters “ge jin zi,” but totally misses the true meaning of those characters.

‘Gejin’s Purple’ has always been a favorite with visitors at Cricket Hill.

Hu’s Red 胡紅 hu hong

This variety is presumably named after the Hu family which first identified it in their garden.

‘Hu’s Red’ at Cricket Hill

Imperial Yellow Robes 御衣黃 yu yi huang

Named for the yellow robes which only the emperor of China was permitted to wear. We were very excited to find a source for this variety in the late 1980s. Unfortunately it never bloomed as advertised, the specimens we have in our garden always bloom pink. Our sources in China say that even there it is a very rare variety and unscrupulous growers pass off ‘fake’ ‘Imperial Yellow Robes’ on unsuspecting buyers. The search for the true Imperial Yellow Robes continues!

Shining Night at Kun Shan 崑山夜光 Kun Shan Ye Guang

Kunshan is an ancient city in eastern China near Suzhou which has since the 1980s developed into a booming (and heavily polluted) industrial center.

Lan Tian Jade 藍田玉 lan tian yu

Named after a prized type of jade found in western Shanxi province.

‘Lan Tian Jade’ in bloom at Peony Heaven

Ruby Wrapped in Ice 冰罩紅石 bing zhao hong shi

Gold Flecked Chinese Ink 墨撒金 mo sa jin

‘Gold Flecks in Chinese Ink’ blooming in our garden.

Daoist Stove Filled with Pills of Immortality 盛丹爈 sheng dan lv

‘Daoist Stove Filled with Pills of Immortality’ blooming at Peony Heaven. The name alone makes this a desirable cultivar.

Wei’s Purple 魏紫 wei zi

‘Wei’s Purple’ is one of the oldest continuously cultivated varieties. It was first recorded almost 1000 years ago.

Yao’s Yellow 姚黃 yao huang

‘Yao’s Yellow’ is also a truly antique variety. 

However we have found it to be very slow growing, with the flower retaining their very pale yellow cast for a day or so before fading to white. For collectors who desire a true yellow tree peony, one of the Saunder’s hybrids like Age of Gold is a better choice.

Zhao’s Pink 趙粉 zhao fen

‘Zhao’s Pink’ is also cultivated for its roots, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine.

Cinnabar Ramparts 硃砂壘 zhu sha lei

‘Cinnabar Ramparts’ in bloom at Cricket Hill Garden.

Intoxicated Immortal 醉仙挑 zui xian tao.

We have never seen this wonderfully named variety offered for sale. Though we and many, many other have surely felt like an ‘intoxicated immortal’ upon viewing a garden of tree peonies in full bloom.

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