Many of us will grow the species tree paeonias P. delavayi and P. lutea var. ludlowii in our gardens. They are tough, easy and long-lived plants in the garden with deeply-cut attractive foliage as well as beautiful flowers each year. Both are shrubby plants, upright in habit, and need little care except the removal of any damaged branches or occasional thinning out in order to rejuvenate the plants.
Paeonia delavayi is named after Pere Jean Marie Delavay (1834 – 1895) a French missionary to China who introduced an enormous number of plants, as many as 1,500, as well as collecting, documenting and pressing another 200,000 specimens. The paeonia was named in 1892 and introduced by Gregor Nikolacvich Potanin in 1904. It is found mainly in north Yunnan, south-west Sichuan and Tibet. It grows to 1.5 metres in height and produces its 8cm wide maroon flowers in June. It can be a disappointing flower in the garden and its main strength is in its use in hybridisation, introducing its strong colour to many cultivars.
Paeonia lutea is another woody species which was introduced from China around 1886. P. lutea var. ludlowii was collected by Frank Ludlow and George Sherriff in Tibet in 1936. This latter introduction was bigger in general size and flower size than the original species and it the one generally grown in our gardens. It grows to 1.5 metres with 10cm yellow flowers.
George Forrest reported on seeing probable hybrids between P. delavayi and P. lutea in the wild. They varied from yellow with crimson blotches at the base to brownish orange. Roy Lancaster reported similar plants in his “Travels in China”. Similar crosses have been found in cultivation with variations in the proportions of yellow and crimson in the flowers as well as differences in flower size.
The best known of these crosses here in Ireland is Paeonia ‘Anne Rosse’, named for Anne Parsons, Countess of Rosse, wife of Michael Parsons, the 6th Earl of Rosse whose family has lived at Birr Castle for almost four centuries. There is a good specimen of this plant at the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin.
I saw a specimen of a lesser known example of this cross when we visited Glenveagh Gardens in Co. Donegal recently. This is Paeonia ‘Derek Hill’, named for the English artist who settled in Churchill, Letterkenny, and had an association with Tory Island for over 60 years helping to establish the internationally renowned community of artists on the island. The plant grows to approximately one metre in height and the flowers are a dark yellow with distinct red flares on each petal. Dr. E. Charles Nelson, in “A Heritage of Beauty”, records that it was raised by Derek Hill though I have heard that Derek Hill intimated that he had received it as a gift from the 6th Earl of Rosse.
This paeonia is a very scarce plant in cultivation because of the difficulty of propagating these tree paeonias. For the moment, we will have to enjoy looking at them when we come across them and wait until they become more widely available.