Magnificent May

How did it get to be May already? It seems a very short time ago that we were looking at the low sun and listening to the lone robins sing, bare earth and branches waiting for a temperature hike. Well, the Garden has plumped up with leaves and life, almost fluorescent in its vibrancy. It’s a wonderful time of year, even when it rains you can almost see the plants growing. 

While the rain is soaking into the May soil, it also threatens the flowers of one group of plants in our Chinese Herb Garden. This year we have completed our peony garden, a unique display here in the west country, and on Sunday 12th May we’re holding a day dedicated to peonies in celebration. One thing we’d like for people to see in this area is of course the flowers of peonies, and the weather was doing its best to rain on our peony parade. So we decided to pamper these plants with an umbrella each. It might seem over the top, but it’s a treatment that some of them are accustomed to. In days gone by the gansu mudan peony has led a life of privilege; ancient China knew it as the Emperor’s flower and law decreed that it was only grown in his gardens. Specialist growers were tasked with cultivating it for use in the imperial borders, but if anyone got ideas above their station and sneaked some in their own garden, well, they were executed! So some of these peony flowers have the air of ‘an umbrella is no more than I deserve’.

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The pretty peony – a flower of culture

By Helen Roberts

The peony has undeniably beautiful flowers, from the perfect spherical bud giving a hint of the petal colour underneath to the rapid unfurling of immense blooms. Even the foliage is attractive, particularly towards the end of the season when they readily take on autumnal tints.

I admire them in gardens that are not my own for I have never grown peonies, the tree nor the herbaceous species. The flowers, although staggeringly large and of sublime colours and subtle scents, are too short lived for my own small garden. After all peonies need space. However, I am looking forward to the development of a new peony garden in the University of Bristol Botanic Garden. It will form part of a new ‘Culture’ display, which is being implemented this year with the help of the Chinese Garden co-ordinator, Tony Harrison, who is a traditional Chinese herbalist.

Tree peony. Image credit: RHS

Peonies are native to Asia, Southern Europe and North America and are contained within the Paeoniaceae family. There are 4 different types, the tree peony, herbaceous peony, the hybrids and the intersectional peonies, which are crosses of tree and herbaceous peonies. Tony explains the different species of tree peonies [1]:

‘When they first arrived, the Chinese tree peony was thought to be a single species which was named Paeonia suffructicosa, but research showed P. suffructicosa to be a hybrid which has been derived from at least three main species which have been interbred over several thousand years to produce the wide range of cultivars from different regions of China. These original source species were then separated into three separate wild species as P. ostii, P.jishanensis and P. yunanensis.’

A number of species will be cultivated in the new peony display at the Botanic Garden. These will include ones from different regions of China including the wild species of P. ostii, P. jishanensis and P. yunanensis as well as P. delavayi, P. rockii and P. suffructicosa, and several herbaceous species.

A long history of medicinal use

Peony tubers have been used for medicinal purposes for centuries. The bark of the roots is used to treat congestion, blood disorders and worms [2]. Tony explains the importance of peonies in Chinese medicine:

‘Peonies were being used in medicine long before they were cultivated for ornamental purposes. It is considered that peonies have been used medicinally dating back about 2,000 years. The root bark of the tree peony is used to cool and move the blood, whereas the herbaceous peony is used to tonify the blood. The Chinese name for peony is mudan (牧丹) and the characters can be translated to mean the colour “red” but also “medicine” and “healing”. The bark is separated from the remainder of the root, chopped, dried and used in combination with other substances.’

The plant is also revered for its attractiveness. The flower colours range from yellow, cream, red, pink; all the way to lavender and near black [3]. Some have a unique, almost peppery and spicy, scent. I am fond of the smell, it is not cloying or overpowering like some flower scents. The choice of peony hybrids and cultivated varieties is vast, there are so many to choose from. The herbaceous peonies are more commonly grown in Europe and North America and because of this familiarity with the herbaceous form, tree peonies are not as popular. I prefer the tree peonies as they offer interesting foliage and architectural form.

The tree peony has been grown for its flowers in China since the 6th and 7th centuries during the Sui (581-618 AD) and Tang dynasties (618-906 AD) when it appeared in the imperial palaces. It is rumoured to be one of the first flowers to be cultivated purely for its ornamental purposes from the ancient city of Luòyáng and the seat of the Sung dynasty (960-1279 AD), hence it is often called luòyànghuā or flower from Luòyáng [2]. The enthusiasm during the Sung dynasty for peonies is comparable to the tulip mania that gripped Holland in the 17th century and immense sums where paid for highly prized peonies. In Luòyáng many peony exhibitions and shows are still held there annually. Peonies in China are normally cultivated by planting in terraces or raised beds and protected from the harsh summer sun by mat awnings [2].

The symbolism of the peony

Along with many other flowers grown in China, the peony is shrouded in layers of symbolism. Among the tree peonies (Peonia suffruticosa), the male vermilion flower is known as the ‘King of Flowers’ (花王 hūawang) and represents both royalty and aristocracy [2]. The tree peony was originally grown by royalty, the aristocracy and eventually, over time, throughout China. In the imperial palaces, it was often displayed in opulent reception halls, being used as a table plant in large vases. The ink and deep red forms as well as a variety with a yellow edge on the petals, known as the ‘Golden border peony’ were highly valued [4]. The peony is also called fùguìhūa (富貴花), the flower (hūa) of wealth (fù) and rank (guì) symbolising wealth, social status and honour [2]. Despite being associated with the yang principle (male) of masculinity and brightness it also represents female beauty and reproduction, especially erotic lushness [5].

The flowers of the four seasons – the tree peony is spring.
Image: Jimmie on Flickr [CC By 2.0]

The tree peony is one of four flowers which symbolise the seasons; tree peony –  the spring (and March); the lotus – summer; the chrysanthemum – autumn; and the plum – winter.

The herbaceous peonies are termed the ‘Prime Minister of All Flowers’ and are also highly prized.
As well as using the plant form itself, peonies have long been depicted in Chinese art forms (literary and visual) for centuries and they form one of the main motifs in silk tapestries, paintings, lacquerware and clothing. They are often displayed alongside peacock, pheasant, fowl, phoenix and lion to represent splendour, status and nobility [2].

Such is the importance of peonies in Chinese culture that numerous stories and poems have been written and told. There is the wonderful fable of ‘The Fabulous Peony’, where the wicked and vain Empress Wu Zetian ordered all flowers in the Imperial garden to bloom overnight in winter and those that did not would be punished. The senior member of the Imperial garden, the Male Vermillion Peony refused to obey, whilst the other flowers in the
garden submitted and duly produced blooms to please Empress Wu.

In her fury at being disobeyed, the peony was banished from the Imperial Palace and anyone growing it would be put to death. To save the peony from destruction the royal gardener, Pei Fu sent roots of the peony to a friend in Luoyang, a place considered lacking in culture and hence not likely a place to arouse suspicion. And here the peony flourished, the peony gardens at Luoyang remaining a secret until the death of the Empress Wu when it emerged out of hiding [6].

Helen Roberts is a trained landscape architect with a background in plant sciences. She is a probationary member of the Garden Media Guild and a regular contributor to the University of Bristol Botanic Garden blog.

References:

[1] Harrison, T. Varieties of Peony. Journal Archive. The Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine.
[2] Williams, C.A.S., 2006. Chinese Symbolism and Art Motifs: A Comprehensive Handbook on Symbolism in Chinese Art Through the Ages. Tuttle Publishing.
[3] Fearnley-Whittingstall, J., 1999. Peonies. Harry N. Abrams.
[4] Li, H.L., 2012. Chinese flower arrangement. Courier Corporation.
[5] Welch, P.B., 2013. Chinese art: A guide to motifs and visual imagery. Tuttle Publishing.
[6] Chew, K., 2008. The Magical Dumplings and Other Chinese Fables. iUniverse.

Beauty in Nature, Nature in Beauty

The 2017 University of Bristol Botanic Garden Sculpture Festival and Quilting Exhibition

By Alida Robey

Plant holder by Willa Ashworth.
Photo credit: Alida Robey

I have to confess that my expectations were low when I entered the University of Bristol Botanic Garden on Easter weekend to explore the sculpture festival. I have been to a few of these types of events over the years, none of which have done much to enhance either the setting or the ‘nicknacks’, described as art, on display.  I tend to favour simple uncluttered  gardens, focused on plants. My preconceived ideas were soon turned on their head, however, by the huge crowds queuing to get in and people milling about happily in the gardens. The right balance had been beautifully struck between fine art and very accessibly ‘buyable’ items. 

This year’s festival was the busiest yet with a record 4,729 people coming through; this annual Easter weekend event has been gaining in popularity with 2,459 people in 2013, 2,889 in 2014, 3,156 in 2015 and 3,161 in 2016. The exhibition effectively showcased the art, while at the same time drawing people through the various garden displays, with works of art that were well suited to each of the distinct areas of garden.
Large flame scallop by Philippa Macarthur.
Photo credit: Alida Robey
I spoke to several people who were all warmly enthusiastic about the whole event; helped by good weather, these visitors said they had enjoyed the atmosphere of bubbling positivity, been impressed with the creativity on display, and were thoroughly delighted in wandering through the gardens enjoying the new life bursting into leaf and flower. It was an all-round good day for people of all ages. 
I had seen a few people walking away clutching items of garden art that they had purchased.  Talking to some of the traders there, it was apparent that this had been a great success from their point of view too.  They loved being in the beautiful setting, had enjoyed seeing how the gardens had developed since previous years and were pleased at the response they had had from visitors who, if they hadn’t made purchases, often went off with contact details to follow up on at a later date.
Dish by glass artist Adele Christensen.
Photo credit: Alida Robey
One could not do justice here in print to the range and diversity of work on display. From the large shallow dishes made by Adele Christensen (see photos) with their lustrous and mysterious finish, looking like something you might find in a magical rockpool, reflecting sky and water. To the silver metal figure by Daren Greenhow, standing wistfully in a sea of anemones reaching out holding a bird perched on its hand and set beautifully at the base of a  great tree.

Ringing ceramic bells beneath the maple.
Photo credit: Alida Robey
The delightful family I joined for my tour of the exhibition drew me into things I might otherwise have missed. There was a beautiful maple tree with its new leaves unfurling above us and, as we walked under its canopy, we noticed ceramic bells suspended from its lower branches. All the family had a go at ringing the bells and their tinkling sound perfectly complemented the oriental atmosphere of the tree’s form and foliage. The wonderful thing about garden art is that, in having to endure the elements, it is generally made to be quite robust and therefore also capable of surviving the curious attentions of little children.  It was a great joy to see how much the children engaged with the pieces and delighted in the garden.
Metal sculpture by Daren Greenhow.
Photo credit: Alida Robey
I had gone around the sculpture part of the exhibition, and it was almost as an after-thought that I recalled there was still the Quilting Exhibition to see.  I love quilting, but wasn’t sure I was in the frame of mind to see ‘yet another display of quilting’. How wrong could I have been? I have to say that this ended up being the highlight of my day! I had never seen it’s like. One quilter using seemingly random lines of stitching to create landscapes, another creating a beautiful and very personal quilt narrating her family’s history. The latter used a technique whereby she had printed family photos and mementos of places lived into the cloth of the quilted sections. But the showstopper for me was this magnificent tableau by Jane Bjoroy called ‘True Nature’. Each exquisite creature is made by applying and appliqueing tiny pieces of different coloured cloth finely stitched. The whole scene of individual creatures was lovingly portrayed and beautifully interlinked into a stupendous portrayal of the magnificence and majesty of nature. 

I have scarcely touched the surface of the great talent that was on display throughout the Botanic Garden, and the great love that the people of Bristol clearly have for this haven of tranquillity and creativity. All I can do is use the few glimpses shown here to urge those of you who sadly missed it this year, to make sure you put the date in your diary for 2018!

Nature is an extraordinary sculptor.
Photo credit: Alida Robey
When it comes to it though, I am fundamentally a gardener at heart. It was nature as artist and sculptor extraordinaire that stays with me and which this exhibition highlighted beautifully, both in reflecting nature in art and by drawing attention to the setting.  These ferns (picture) for example, could just as readily have held their own in a sculpture gallery, to my view.
Alida Robey has a small gardening business in Bristol and attended the Botanic Garden’s annual Easter Sculpture Festival for the first time this year.