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