Peony perfection

It’s happened again, right on schedule. Millions of peonies and besotted fans have come together in China’s Henan Province to celebrate China’s beloved national flower. Virtually unknown in the west, the Luoyang Peony festival attracts millions of tourists each year, mostly locals but we go there with our small group to fly the Aussie flag.

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Peter Whitehead reports from Luoyang, China: “This is third time around for Ross Tours and if yesterday’s exclamations of joy, general happiness, wonder and amazement were anything to go by, it’s a rip roaring success!

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We travelled to Luoyang at bullet train speed (yes over 300kph) from the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an. No-one else, apart form the locals, seem to know that Luoyang was China’s capital for 13 dynasties and has cultivated peonies for more than 1,500 of those years. As such Luoyang is the Peony Capital of the world and the peony is widely accepted as the national flower of China, known in China as the ‘finest flower under heaven’. The peony loves growing in this region. The area belongs to the north temperate continental climate zone (yes there’s a test on that at the end) and has four distinct seasons. The average temperature is about 15C and the yearly rainfall is 578 millimetres. (Ok that’s enough stats – oh wait one more) winter is very cold and dry (so don’t come in winter).

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The Shenzhou Peony Garden actually has the largest collection of peonies in the world. (According to google) We walked in with thousands of Chinese tourists – so there’s a bit of push and shove but once you’re through, the cameras (or smartphones) just never stop clicking.

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Western tourists seldom venture to these parts and our group were constantly being photographed (by garden paparazzi – you heard it here first) – it was fun to see locals enjoying paddocks overflowing with their favourite flowers. There was much laughter as enthusiastic Chinese families jumped fences wanting to be photographed alongside their favourite blooms, much to the annoyance of whistle blowing guards.

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The peony has significant meaning for the people of China; it stands for happiness, prosperity and honour and is found on porcelain, textiles, silk, food and in tea. The month long festival celebrates peonies in many ways with cultural events such as lantern festival, banquets, calligraphy and painting. There’s even a reality talent show! China’s Got Talent eat your heart out.

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Perfect peonies as far as the eye can see. The grounds are extensive – at least 40 acres of peonies – imagine that?! Yes we were exhausted at the end.

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What is it with the peony that makes the heart beat faster? Well for starters we can’t grow them!  Its a grass is greener thing. And if I know anything about gardening folk – we love to covet the impossible. Then there’s the fact they are simply nineteenth century, belle-of-the-ball, beautiful! Velvet ruffles, crinolin, pleats, silk, taffeta and tule – you get the picture? … they have it all. The actual texture of the petals – nothing feels as good, or looks as though it would. Then we have their height – they grow to the perfect height for maximum peony gazing pleasure – no tippy toeing to get a better look – not much performs as well as this at the one metre mark. Then we have their heads –  blooms hold their heads upwards, their necks nestling close into luscious greenery.

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Then finally there are those stamens! Oh the stamens.. Each one dipped in gold.

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The colours and sheer volume of blooms were overwhelming, ranging from pure white to the deepest purple and all stops between. Singles, bi-colours, and dinner-plate flowers measuring up to 20cm in diameter. I was reminded of a line in a poem by America writer Henry Mitchell The fattest and most scrumptious of all flowers, a rare fusion of fluff and majesty, the peony is now coming into bloom.

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The first peonies to open were all of the ‘tree’ variety; the herbaceous will follow, extending the blooming display for another three weeks. We wandered, cameras clicking for three hours of pure peony bliss.

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There is no coordinated plan or design within the garden. Some peonies grow under shadecloth, others out in the open.

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Some grow happily under trees. Garden bed size and shape were pretty random, some raised, some not.

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The soil look looked like crumbly clay, no evidence of any mulch or fertiliser. Watering is done by flooding the beds in most cases.

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All in all, what a day! Luoyang peonies will surpass anything we’ll ever see again. A tree peony in full outrageous colour is one of life’s finest horticultural moments – multiply that by 500,000 and you can understand why I get so excited!”

Photos: Peter Whitehead

Peter is a respected nurseryman, horticulturist, and popular garden tour leader with Ross Garden Tours. He is returning to China and Louyang’s annual peony festival next April.

Comments (2)

  1. These Louyang peonies brought fond memories of our trip to China in 2013 with Libby Cameron back to me even though it was drizzling rain. Took many photos in the rain and they are still wonderful. Thank you for a wonderful trip down memory lane. Barbara.

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