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Tree peonies are among the oldest plants in the world and have made an indelible impact upon the world's art. The Chinese have been growing these lovely shrubs for approximately one thousand six hundred years and it is still easy for us to imagine the sense of awe that Europeans must have felt when they first saw them over three hundred years ago. The flowers were many times larger than those of a rose, and they must have seemed incredibly exotic. Most of us still have that feeling when we look at a mature plant, covered with dozens of flowers. On the face of it tree peonies appear to be rather delicate, but they can tolerate low temperatures in the winter when they are dormant and will withstand summer drought.
Tree peonies are endemic to China, where they have been grown as medicinal plants since at least the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220). The first reference to their medicinal use was found in a medical book, excavated in 1972 from a tomb in Gansu Province (Lianying et al., 1998). Carved on sheets of bamboo and dated to the first century A.D. the book refers to the bark of tree peony roots being used to prevent blood clotting. Two centuries later the Wu shih Pên Tshao, which was written in A.D. 235, says that "The root is the thickness of a finger, and black, this is where the dangerous active principle resides. The fruits and seeds should be picked between the second and the eighth months, and when dried in the sun can be eaten. They lighten the body and promote longevity."
We do not know how long the Chinese have been growing tree peonies as ornamental plants, but they first appear in paintings as early as the fourth century A.D.. The earliest record of cultivated varieties comes from the time of the Sui Dynasty (A.D. 581–618), when tree peonies were grown in the imperial gardens in Xiyuan (now Luoyang). Most of them were probably collected from the wild and included plants with white, red or pink flowers. The tree peonies were so highly regarded that the Emperor Yang Ti issued a decree placing tree peonies under his personal protection.
During the reign of the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618–907) China became a prosperous and peaceful country. Chinese nurserymen and private gardeners started to collect all of the species of tree peony that were available and experimented with them until they discovered how to graft them. Cultivation seems to have started in the old capital of Changan (now Xi'an in Shensi Province) and then spread to other provinces, where breeding continued and in some cases the plants were crossed with other wild species that were endemic to that region.
While open pollination must have taken place and new cultivars arose naturally it also seems likely that the Chinese would have quickly learnt how to pollinate the plants artificially and produce their own seedlings. One of the leading horticulturists of the time, Sung Shan-Fu (A.D.