Peonies and Traditional Gardens of Japan
By Anthony Blanchfield
In May 1998 I arrived on Honshu Island, Japan, to begin a five week study tour. I had several aims which included studying the cultivation and display of cultivars of the tree peony Paeonia suffruticosa and also cultivars of the herbaceous P. lactiflora.
During a one week visit to Kyoto I also hoped to study the principles, elements and techniques used in the development of traditional Japanese landscape gardens. In particular I wanted to study examples of historically important gardens of secular, imperial and religious significance. Additional aims included an investigation into the ex-situ flora of Honshu Island by visiting Ofuna, Hirosaki and Kyoto Botanic Gardens as well as an in-situ investigation into the flora and landscape of Central Honshu during a botanising expedition into the `Japanese Alps’, close to Matsumoto.
Having arrived in Tokyo I travelled west to Daikon Shima Island where Japanese peony growers graft and export over one million eight hundred thousand tree peonies each year. I was able to study the cultivation techniques used by these growers. The techniques included preferring to use the apical wedge graft technique to graft the Paeonia suffruticosa scion onto a P. lactiflora rootstock. As P. lactiflora is prone to suckering, I was also told how Japanese growers have recently begun to experiment with an alternative herbaceous rootstock known as the `Manchurian Peony’, which suckers much less. I visited a number of highly successful commercial herbaceous peony nurseries who specialised in growing peonies for both the cut flower and garden plant markets.
Japanese peony hybridisers seem to favour the semi-double flower over the full double or rose forms and this may account in part for their popularity; the stem being much better able to support the weight of the flower, especially in areas of high rainfall.
In order to study the display of peonies, I visited a number of public parks and gardens with extensive peony collections. The sites visited included Sukagawa Peony Garden close to Fukushima, the To-Sho-Go shrine in Ueno Park, Tokyo, Hanaizumi Park close to Koryama and to Ofuna Botanical Garden, made famous by the hybridiser Itoh San for his work to produce the intersectional hybrids including `Yellow Heaven’ `Yellow Dream’.
I was able to compile a photographic record of the gardens visited and to record many named cutivars that I was fortunate to see in flower. The peonies were always planted in dedicated beds, never in mixed borders, reflecting the status.
My travel scholarship also enabled me to study the highly developed and formalised traditional gardens of Kyoto. These included visiting Katsura and Shugakuin Imperial Villas. These imperial gardens are recognised as being the finest examples of the early stroll garden and paradise garden styles; I was also able to study the informal moss garden of Saihoji, as well as the dry landscape styles of Daisen’in and Ryoanji. The gardens were all designed asymmetrically as representations of the wider natural landscape; although highly contrived the gardens appeared natural and always showed balance and proportion.
Travelling East from Kyoto I was able to conclude my scholarship by studying the flora of Central Honshu by spending two days botanising in the `Japanese Alps’ close to Matsumoto. During a three thousand metre climb to the snow line, walking through mixed deciduous woodland I encountered such plants as Paris japonica, Pyrola incanata, Parasenecio maximowciana as well as coming across a population in flower, of 15 plants of the widely distributed Paeonia japonica, a personal highlight of my scholarship.