Although it looks no different than any other Chinese city of its size, Luoyang, in Henan province, cradles priceless ancient treasures beneath its dusty streets and holds thousands of years of history close to its heart. The city, most well known for being the seat of nine dynasties, also made a name for itself in the cultivation of peonies during the Song dynasty (960-1279), retaining its flowery reputation even today.
The tree peony (Paeonia suffruticosa), known as mudan (牡丹) in Chinese, features prominently and glamorously in Chinese painting and poetry. Records show that it was known as the ‘king of flowers’ during the Tang dynasty, and legend has it that it was the only flower dignified enough to defy the empress Wu Ze Tian, leading it to be banished to Luoyang. It was chosen as the national flower in 1903, during the Qing dynasty, although political changes eventually led it to be replaced with the plum blossom in 1929. Following further political changes, the plum blossom was booted alongside the ruling party. China remained steadfastly national-flower-less since then; it’s currently considering awarding the coveted title to both flowers at once.
I was lucky enough to be in Luoyang during the peak peony blooming season, a month-long festival from April to May that probably attracts more tourists than pollinators each year. Amazingly enough it managed to rain the whole time I was there- something I’m told is rather unusual for April- but on the other hand I did manage to get some photographs of the flowers glistening with raindrops, which isn’t too bad a thing at all.
The tree peony is in reality a group of hybrids, formed by hybridising species belonging only to the subsection Vaginatae (as opposed to subsection Delavayanae). As its name suggests, it’s a tree, or a bush, as opposed to other members of the Paeonia genus, which are herbaceous. Its flowers- large, layered, colourful, and fragrant- manage quite effortlessly to be both elegant and opulent. In Luoyang, there are multiple gardens dotted around the city, each boasting their own floral collections and landscapes. I only had time for 中国国花园 (China National Flower Garden, roughly interpreted), bedecked with vendors selling peony adornments, wobbling birds perched at the ends of headbands, and all sorts of street food, tens of shops selling exactly the same thing all the way down the street. I’m guessing that somewhere up the line, the term ‘friendly competition’ was a little misunderstood. But despite the logical conundrum and the drizzle, it’s a lovely, charming place.
As one would expect, different peony varieties do bloom at slightly different times. I caught the most common of them, beautiful but run-of-the-mill whites and pinks and magentas. Just a few weeks later, the most precious of them will spread their petals. Some are a bright golden yellow, some a purple so dark they’re almost black, and some will sport multiple colours. Peony flowers come in six forms: single (bottom right), Japanese, anemone, semi-double (top and bottom left), bomb, and double (top right).
Tree peonies can be propagated from seed. Besides being mere beauties, they have medicinal properties as well: the root bark, known in Chinese medicine as 牡丹皮 (mu dan pi, literally translated ‘tree peony bark’), is considered cooling and used to treat blood vessel disorders, inflammation, infections, and to boost immunity. The flowers themselves are edible and can be made into various sauces, snacks, and tea. I have two jars of peony honey sitting at home, but I’ve never been a fan of flowers in my food, so they’re going to have to sit there for just a while longer.