SOMETIMES A SINGLE exquisite bloom is enough to take your breath away. Sorting through pictures of tree peony blooms from the Seattle Chinese Garden, more than once I gasped with delight. But to truly appreciate the cabbage-sized blooms with crepe-paper petals and intricate centers, you need to see them in a garden, if for no other reason than to experience their spicy-sweet fragrance.
Seattle plantsman Phil Wood describes the blooms as: “Big. Florid. Gorgeous.” His love for tree peonies is a family affair. Wood joined the Seattle Chinese Garden’s board of directors shortly after he and his wife adopted their daughter from China in 1996. “I wanted to increase my knowledge about Chinese culture,” he says. “Adopting a second daughter from China deepened my interest further.”
The tree peony (Paeonia suffruticosa) is native to China, where, dating to the sixth century, Chinese herbalists, gardeners and artists have celebrated its beauty, utility and longevity. Unlike herbaceous peonies, tree peonies don’t die back in winter but are woody shrubs that grow 4 to 6 feet tall and about 4 to 5 feet wide. Flower forms vary from lush doubles to languid singles in watercolor shades of pink, yellow and coral, to dramatic purple, red and pristine white.
When planting a tree peony in the garden, provide well-drained soil, and situate the plant where it will receive a half-day of sun, preferably with some afternoon shade to prolong bloom life. Blooms appear mid-April through early May, about two weeks earlier than herbaceous peonies. A far more modest but still-stunning display occurs in fall, when the plants’ deep-green foliage shifts to shades of bronze and purple. Blossoms form on old wood, and little to no pruning is necessary until plants are well-established. Tree peonies require you to cultivate patience, as growth is slow. Someone once told me, “They’re even better the second 100 years.”
For those of you looking to be dazzled in the here and now, a visit to the Luoyang Tree Peony Garden at the Seattle Chinese Garden during bloom season will light you up. Located on 4.5 acres on the northern perimeter of South Seattle College in West Seattle, the garden showcases Chinese arts and culture as well as a commanding view of downtown Seattle and Elliott Bay. The garden has 400 tree peonies from Luoyang, China, a major center of peony cultivation. The tree peonies have been in the ground for five years, and should be in peak bloom from now through mid-May.
Traditionally composed of plants, stone, architecture and water, Chinese gardens are considered earthly microcosms of the entire universe. In addition to tree peonies, the Seattle Chinese Garden features pines (to symbolize endurance), bamboo (for flexibility) and shimmering ponds filled with lotus (an expression of purity).
According to the Seattle Chinese Garden website, the vision of the garden is to “inspire global understanding by immersing visitors in the richness and beauty of Chinese culture.” With the support of craftsmen and plantspeople on both sides of the globe, the garden is a place where nature and culture come together in beauty.
The Seattle Chinese Garden is open every day of the week from dawn to dusk. Admission is free, but donations are appreciated. Visit the website for driving instructions and information about this year’s Peony Festival and plant sale.