"Only the tree peony is the most beautiful in the land,
When it opens its blossoms, the whole capital stirs into motion."
Praise of the Peony, Liu Yuxi (transl. Mark Lewis)
Tree peony flowering on the last day of March, 2020

Mudan, King of Flowers, the tree peony, evokes strong sentiment, and Liu Yuxi’s poem* does not exaggerate the glory of Mudan flowers. Little has changed over the 12 centuries that have passed since Liu wrote; tree peonies reside on a throne in some floral pantheon with the most incredible of orchids and nature’s greatest oddities, like Amorphophallus titanum. But Liu’s original thoughts are in Chinese, which means their precise sound and sentiment change in translation. Wang Ying, 2018, approaches Liu’s sentiments with very different word choice:

"Only the tree peonies can sublime comeliness engender.
The time they unfold is bound to turn the imperial capital raptly astir."
Full-blown, 10″ flower of the tree peony in Liu Fang Yuan, set aside a champagne flute for scale (Photo JRMF)

In a popular article about tourism around Chongqing, we find yet another translation: “Only the peony is really a national beauty with its bloom shocking the capital.”

It takes a host of attempts to convey the experience of holding one of these flowers; many artists and writers have contributed in that effort. For more than twelve centuries, peonies have been beloved in China. Admiring the tree peony blossoms that opened this week in the Liu Fang Yuan, I must say there is nothing else quite like them. Neither images nor even words easily convey the most delicate porcelain texture of the carefree petals, as though mother of pearl were softened to the finest silk – impossibly thin while resolutely lofted. I marvel at the petal margins: how do they grow so perfectly random, each on a plan of its own, but all in a recognizable pattern.

Peonies are ancient plants, original to the great North Temperate flora that evolved in cobbled-together landmasses we call Laurasia (a time when the plants of today’s North America and those of Asia were not separated so fully by great oceans. ) Many distant relatives among early flowering plants (magnolias, roses, camellias) share characteristics easily observed in overblown peony flowers—separate petals, numerous stamens, and multiple simple pistils, the kind of structure botanists consider normal for early Angiosperms (the flowering plants.)

In the heart of a Peony flower, you easily see the separate petals, numerous stamens, and multiple, free pistils.
The same flower, dissected, showing the individual peony pistils, each with its flabellate (fan-shaped) stigmatic lobe.

Informed by their particular structure, Peonies are readily iconic, with spherical buds and leafy, green sepals that turn down as flowers open.

Combining that imagery with thick stems and spreading compound leaves, artists are able to take broad license in representing Mudan, while easily signaling the intent to relate image to symbol, a suggestion of wealth – even on cheap export porcelain.

For my part, imagery too easily falls short, while poetry comes closer to expressing the beauty of peonies. Their burgeoning buds, extravagant unfolding, and elegant colors convey nature’s wealth, a bounty that inappreciable except through personal engagement.

*Read the complete poem below. Liu casts shade on other flowers, shaoyao (herbaceous peonies) and lotus.

“In Appreciation of the Tree Peony”

The shaoyao before the courtyard are seductive but spineless; the lotuses in the pond, pure but passionless. 

Only the tree peony is a true kingdom-crowning beauty: when its blossoms open, the whole capital is shaken!

Liu Yuxi (772-842)

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