Plant detective: on the trail of the tree peony

 plant detective at Gardeners CallDo you ever wonder where your plants come from? No, I don’t mean the local garden centre, nor even the nursery that supplies its plants. Where did they actually originate — and who brought them here in the first place?

If, like me, you start to love your plants then it’s a bit like taking an interest in a new friend. Where did he or she grow up and what makes him or her tick?

When it comes to our favourite garden plants, you don’t have to dig too far (sorry) before you come up with tales of swashbuckling characters who sailed on high-masted ships to far parts of the world and put their lives at risk. Early plant hunters were incredible characters.

From Devon to Tibet

Tree peony at Gardeners Call

Our tree peony – easy to grow

I went up to the very top off our hillside garden over the weekend and said hello to a tree peony (Paeonia suffruticosa High Noon) that has suddenly come into glorious bloom. A vision in yellow set against bright green leaves and with woody upright stems, it is all of five feet tall.  The plant hunter in me (I explore only East Devon) quickly took myself to my iPad in the shed and suddenly I was transported to south east Tibet, the biggest region of China.

I thought the top part of our garden was quite high up (it’s all of 30 metres above the sea three miles away) but suddenly I was on what is known as the roof of the world on the north side of the Himalayas. We are talking about an elevation of 5,000 metres rising to nearer 9,000 metres if you make it to the top of Everest. 

So who fetched themselves all that way to get me a tree peony? Well I reckon it was a Scottish botanist by the name of Robert Fortune who collected 25 varieties between 1843 and 1862 and brought them back to the UK to be hybridised.

Over 1,000 years old

But the history of the tree peony goes back much further. They were initially developed by the Chinese at the time of the Tang dynasty over a thousand years ago. They were revered by the Chinese but, like Buddhism, gardening and tea, then developed by the Japanese.

Robert Fellows: one of the great plant hunters

And thereby hangs another amazing tale because Robert Fortune is also credited with introducing tea plants from politically volatile China to British-controlled Assam in 1848. In two years out there, he often had to disguise himself as a Chinese merchant to avoid arrest.  It was worth it though because as a result of his dangerous mission we British gained a large, highly profitable industry and were able to manufacture tea throughout the world. But most of all, we got tea as our national drink!

So when it finally stops raining today, I will take a cuppa up to my beautiful tree peony and drink a toast to a fine man. Cheers Robert – I owe you much. Hope you made as much as the man who invented Velcro.

How to grow tree peonies

They are easy. Hardy down to about -15C, they grow to about 1.5m in the UK. They like moist, humus-rich, free draining soil in full sun to partial shade and are happy in acid or alkaline.  Wilt can be a problem as can eelworms and swift moth larvae.  Plant them in the autumn and selectively prune in January once established.