The Colorful Story of Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Japanese Tree Peonies - Brooklyn Botanic Garden
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The Colorful Story of Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Japanese Tree Peonies

The Tree Peony Collection at Brooklyn Botanic Garden is a rare planting of more than 300 specimens that were presented as a gift from the Japanese city of Yatsuka-Cho in the fall of 2002, as a memorial to the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Consisting of 49 different varieties of Japanese tree peony, the collection highlights six different colors, and each variety was grown by a small family nursery on the island of Daikon-Shima in Shimane Prefecture.

The tree peony is known as the king of flowers in Asia and is the national flower of China. At one time in the distant past, the emperor of China was the only one allowed to own them. Native to the rocky slopes of the Himalayan mountains, they were eventually brought to Japan where they were selected and bred for larger flowers and more intense colors.

Former BBG president Judy Zuk accepted the peonies from Yaksuka-Cho after several meetings and visits with officials from Japan. In September of 2002 a shipment of hundreds of bare-root peonies arrived in California. Tragically, a dockworker lockout occurred at that time, and the plants died inside the shipping container after it sat at the docks for weeks.

The generous people of Yatsuka-cho then prepared another shipment of plants. Unfortunately, this delivery didn’t arrive until early December, during an arctic cold blast. A huge effort was made by the entire Horticulture staff to plant the peonies in frozen soil during a snowstorm. This was made more difficult by the fact that many of the plant labels were printed only in Japanese.

Miraculously, the next spring almost all the peonies burst into growth in April, only to have all the flower buds eaten by rabbits. The big surprise came the following spring, in 2004, when the larger plants all flowered with a nice display. This was news making, due to the rarity of such a large tree peony collection in the United States at the time. Many of the varieties in bloom had not previously been seen in the United States.

The Tree Peony Collection in 2010. Photo by Rebecca Bullene.

The collection was originally arranged in a collage design with groups of five to seven peonies of the same variety planted within five separate, slightly raised planting beds. Two large beds were transplanted to the Cherry Walk area when the Visitor Center construction began in 2010.

In peak bloom in 2017. Photo by Blanca Begert.

The tree peony is a woody erect shrub (Paeonia suffruticosa) that grows to 5 to 6 feet in height and blooms on old wood, usually in the first week of May in New York City. The perennial peony (Paeonia lactiflora), on the other hand, dies back to the ground each winter and blooms about two weeks later than the tree peonies.

Tree peonies are popular with home gardeners and are not hard to care for. They prefer well-drained soil and full sun to partial shade and are not usually bothered by pests, except a fungal disease called powdery mildew that only affects the leaves.

At the Garden, all six colors of tree peonies and many rare cultivars are represented in our collection. Safe and sound at last, the plants have been blooming gloriously each spring, usually in late April or early May. This year, they bloom while the Garden is closed to the public for the entire spring season, an historic and bittersweet moment. Below are some of my favorite cultivars. Enjoy the photographs and plan to visit them at the Garden next year.

The collection in peak bloom this year. Photo by Steve Severinghaus.

Purple: Paeonia suffruticosa ‘Shimane-chohjuraku’

These large purple-lavender flowers have darker flares at the base of the petals.

White: Paeonia suffruticosa ‘Tama Usagi’

Up to ten inches in diameter, these giant double-flowered blossoms are pure white.

Red: Paeonia suffruticosa ‘Shimanishiki’

This cultivar’s bright red, medium-size flowers are similar to the ‘Taiyo’ variety, but with irregular white striping on the petals. No two flowers have exactly the same pattern.

Black: Paeonia suffruticosa ‘Hatsugarasu’

Not actually black, ‘Hatsugarasu’ flowers are darkest red, single blossom, and medium sized. This cultivar blooms early and has long narrow leaflets on the foliage.

Pink: Paeonia suffruticosa ‘Goshozakura’

These huge cherry blossom–pink flowers bloom to reveal reddish-purple stigmas and sheaths.

Yellow: Paeonia suffruticosa ‘High Noon’

An American hybrid with tree peony and herbaceous peony parents, this single-petaled, bright yellow peony is among the last to bloom. The medium-sized flowers have brown flares at the base of the petals.

Brian Funk is a landscape designer and master ­gardener. He is also the curator of the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden and the Japanese Tree Peony Collection at Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

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Image, top of page: Blanca Begert