Perhaps the best place to begin the story of peonies in the garden is in China. Peonies were known in China as far back as perhaps 1000 BCE. It was not however until the seventh century, during the reign of the Emperor Yang (605-617) of the Sui dynasty, that peonies were thought to have been grown as ornamental plants.
During the T'ang dynasty that followed (618-906) peonies supposedly became very popular in the imperial gardens and they were put under imperial protection. The best varieties commanded huge prices and peonies were often part of a dowry settlement.
During the Sung dynasty, which began at the end of the tenth century, peonies had spread throughout China and the Sung capital of Louyang became a center for peony culture. Today Louyang is still recognized as a center for peony culture. Each year in April, Louyang holds a festival to celebrate the peony.
As new dynasties began and emperors moved their courts, peonies were also moved, adding to the widespread cultivation of peonies throughout China.
During the Ch'ing dynasty of 1644 to 1911, the city of Caozhou like Louyang, became a center for peony culture. Today this city is known as HeZe and is recognized as the other major peony center in China. Like Louyang, HeZe holds an International Peony Fair each year in April.
Chinese horticulturists were the first peony breeders and their work lead to the introduction of many huge, double flowered tree and herbaceous peonies. It is believed that during the twelfth century, Chinese horticulturist began using grafting techniques to reproduce valued cultivars.
In HeZe and Luoyang alone there are more than 800 hectares dedicated to peony production. HeZe possesses a state funded research facility dedicated to research into peony.
At the beginning of the eighth century when peonies reached Japan, Japanese horticulturists began to work with them. The Japanese simplified the flowers. They produced lighter, less complicated flower heads.
Many Japanese herbaceous peonies have a rounded center made of small petals with wider petals surrounding the center. This form of flower is referred to as the Japanese form.
Japan is a major producer of peonies with most of the production taking place in one of six regions. Individual growers rarely sell directly, rather they sell to large cooperatives that in turn market the plants. The growers specialize in either tree or herbaceous peonies but rarely both.
Japanese growers are noted for their skill in grafting and a large percentage of the world's tree peony production comes from Japan.
The beauty of the peony flower has long inspired artists in both the eastern and western parts of the world. Prior to the seventeenth century however it was the artists of China and Japan who incorporated images of the peony into their work.
The peony is practically the national flower of China and is often referred to in poetry and literature. Peonies are one of the main motifs of Chinese decorative arts and can be found on porcelains, in woodblock and screen paintings as well as embroidered onto tapestries and clothing.
Both tree peonies and herbaceous peonies were introduced into Japan at the beginning of the eighth century. The Japanese quickly began incorporating images of the peony into their paintings, porcelains and tapestries. The peony was also the subject of many poems and frequently figured in Japanese literature. Today the peony is still a very popular theme in Japanese art. The peony came to the art of the western world much later and never attained the same level of use as in China and Japan.