By Helen Roberts
|The Australian display still under development
at the Botanic Garden.
|Banksia in bloom.
Photo credit: Shannon Martin
via Flickr [CC by 2.0]
|The Australian display still under development
at the Botanic Garden.
|Banksia in bloom.
Photo credit: Shannon Martin
via Flickr [CC by 2.0]
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 :
‘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.
Peony tubers have been used for medicinal purposes for centuries. The bark of the roots is used to treat congestion, blood disorders and worms . 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 . 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 . 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 .
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 . 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 . The peony is also called fùguìhūa (富貴花), the flower (hūa) of wealth (fù) and rank (guì) symbolising wealth, social status and honour . Despite being associated with the yang principle (male) of masculinity and brightness it also represents female beauty and reproduction, especially erotic lushness .
|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 .
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 .
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.
 Harrison, T. Varieties of Peony. Journal Archive. The Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine.
 Williams, C.A.S., 2006. Chinese Symbolism and Art Motifs: A Comprehensive Handbook on Symbolism in Chinese Art Through the Ages. Tuttle Publishing.
 Fearnley-Whittingstall, J., 1999. Peonies. Harry N. Abrams.
 Li, H.L., 2012. Chinese flower arrangement. Courier Corporation.
 Welch, P.B., 2013. Chinese art: A guide to motifs and visual imagery. Tuttle Publishing.
 Chew, K., 2008. The Magical Dumplings and Other Chinese Fables. iUniverse.
|Salvia uliginosa can be found flowering this time of year
by the Botanic Garden’s main pond.
Photo credit: Helen Roberts.
|Toad Lilies (Tricyrtis macropoda). Photo credit: Helen Roberts.|
For the past three years, the University of Bristol Botanic Garden has hosted Fascination of Plants Day. The event is part of a much larger initiative launched under the umbrella of the European Plant Science Organisation (EPSO). The goal of the day is to get people interested in plants and share the significance of plant science in both the social and environmental arenas.
In 2013, the inaugural year of the event, a total of 689 institutions in 54 countries opened their doors to the public and talked about the wonder of plants. The activities carried out by each institution were extremely varied, but they were united in their celebration of plants. Here at the University of Bristol Botanic Garden, there was a focus on plant classification. In Russia, huge numbers of people attended guided tours on Siberian flora. In Nigeria, focus groups discussed possible partnerships between farmers, processors and scientists. In Norway, workshops were held for children to teach them how to grow their own vegetable gardens.
This year, Fascination of Plants Day was held on Sunday, 17th May. Students at the University of Bristol were in the garden discussing plant classification and research in the plants sciences. I met two final-year undergraduate students, Joshua Valverde and Will Perry, who were on hand discussing different topics within the plant sciences and fielding questions from the public.
Many queries related to binomial nomenclature or plant naming. In biology, the name of a plant (and indeed all living things) is divided into two parts; the first name – the genus – defines a group that comes from a common ancestor and have some common features and the second part – the species – groups together organisms that can interbreed and produce fertile offspring. Together, the genus and species forms the Latin name. Poster information compiled by Joshua explained the history of plant classification.
Joshua explained how plant classification changed over the centuries.
“To begin with, Theophrastus, a Greek philosopher, was one of the first to document and characterise plants by their morphological features. After that, plants were classified according to their medicinal use. And then long and unwieldy Latin names were used based on the morphology of the particular plant. It wasn’t until the mid-1700s that Carl Linnaeus introduced the binominal system.”
Of course, taxonomists don’t always agree on which groupings some species belong to, nor on where groups should be placed in the broader contexts of plant evolution. Classification of plants originally relied on finding similarities in form and structure (morphology) between plants. “This was subject to error though because unrelated species may evolve similar structures as a result of living in similar habitats or in response to some other adaptive need. This is called convergent evolution,” explained Joshua.
However, molecular methods have helped resolve some of these disputes.
|Gnetum gnemon, a member of the order Gnetales.
Photo courtesy of gbohne on Flickr CC.
“Morphological data suggested that the order Gnetales [what we now consider a group of ‘advanced’ conifers] was the closest living relative to the first flowering plant,” explained Joshua. “After molecular analyses of various genes, however, it is now thought that Amborella trichopoda [a shrub native to New Caledonia] is the closest living relative to the first flowering plant. Water lilies also seem to be quite an ancient lineage.”
Will informed me that visitors were particularly interested in how DNA sequencing over the last decade has advanced our understanding of the evolution of plants. He explained that a lot of this work has been carried out by the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group (APG) – an informal group of systematic botanists from around the world who are trying to reach a consensus on the taxonomic groupings of flowering plants. In fact, one of the phylogenetic trees produced by the APG is displayed on a visitor information board in the Botanic Garden.
Additional information on plant classification included details about the Linnean Society of London. This society was founded in 1778 and named after the famous Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778). The aims of the society are to “inspire and inform the public in all areas of natural history through its broad range of events and publications”.
The society maintains the vast animal and plant collections of Carl Linnaeus (the Linnean Herbarium holds some 14,300 specimens alone), looks after his personal library as well as having its own extensive research library. The society has a hugely prestigious past and it was at a society meeting in 1858 that Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace presented papers relating to the theory of evolution by natural selection! The society today continues to report on scientific advances and holds a number of events (including a student lecture series) throughout the year ranging from the genetic diversity of farmed animals to the future of plant conservation.
|Daisy pollen in oil under a light microscope. Image courtesy
For those members of the general public that enjoy hands-on learning, the Botanic Garden had some dissecting and light microscopes available to look at
various plant structures. Under one microscope there was some daisy pollen, which I heard one member of the general public describe as resembling “those spiky looking naval mines”.
Fascination of Plants Day is held each May, so be sure to join us in the Garden for this worthwhile event next year! And don’t forget to come down to the Festival of Nature this weekend (13th-14th June) learn about pitcher plant research, soil and so much more!