The Imperial Flower

Paeonia lutea, 3 May 2017.

Even in normal times it’s difficult to keep up with the garden in May. At Crathes with three gardeners and many volunteers short, the remaining three gardeners are working hard, prioritising, and, like all of us, planning for an uncertain future. With Joanna back at work there is a little more time to take photographs and send reports. And we can see from the photographs that much of the garden is in good shape. I am pleased to see that some of the shrubs that I had expected to be frosted are looking fine; Torphins of course is more elevated and exposed than Crathes. The walls and surrounding trees at Crathes give added shelter.  I have also just heard that Mike and Tim (apprentice) might be back in the garden next week, and that David is cutting grass in the policies of Crathes and other NTS properties. 

Magnolia soulangeana, 9 May 2020. Joanna Shaw.
Magnolia wilsonii, 20 May 2020. Joanna Shaw.
Grevillea rosemarifolia, 20 May 2020. Joanna Shaw.

Fremontodendron, 20 May 2020. Joanna Shaw.
Blue and Pink Border, 9 May 2020. Joanna Shaw.
Double Herbaceous Border from the Aviary Terrace, 20 May 2020. Joanna Shaw.

June Border looking towards the Doocot, 10 May 2020. Joanna Shaw.
June Border looking towards the castle, 21 May 2020. Joanna Shaw.

Chile fire bush, Embothrium coccineum, in the Rose Garden, 20 May 2020. Joanna Shaw.
Enkianthus, 21 May 2020. Joanna Shaw.

In my armchair I have been looking at past photographs and thinking of the peonies that are flowering just now. The peonies have taken me back to China and in particular to Lijiang which I came across in my last piece (date) with Berberis lijiangensis. I will take up the story with two French missionaries who, being fascinated by the flora of the country in which they were posted, sent back specimens to the Paris museum, Musée d’Histoire Naturelle, and alerted the western world to the rich diversity of Chinese plants. Père Jean Marie Delavay (1838-95) had been in China, latterly in Yunnan and based in Lijiang, since 1867. He returned to France in 1881 and whilst there met up with Abbé Armand David (famous for discovery of the handkerchief tree, Davidia involucrata) who had also been in China and had been sending his plant specimens to the Paris museum. As a result of this meeting Delavay also began to send his plants to the museum – they amounted to 200,000 specimens! Amongst those specimens were the two tree peonies: Paeonia delavayi, which is found in pine forests of the Lijiang mountain range, and Paeonia lutea (see above).

Tree peony, Paeonia delavayi, 5 May 2019.
Abies delavayi, in the young pinetum, 2 September 2017.
The handkerchief tree, Davidia involucrata, in the Rose Garden, 19 June 2013.

It was the employment of George Forrest (1873-32) from Falkirk by the Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh (RBGE) that led to Scotland’s involvement in the flora of China. Forrest, an intrepid botanical explorer of the early nineteenth century, travelled in Yunnan and Tibet and introduced many of the plants that Delavay had collected as herbarium specimens. RBGE has the largest collection of plants from China outside the mother country.  

Over a hundred years later, following successful expeditions around Lijiang, RBGE collaboration with the Chinese led to the opening of the Lijiang Botanic Garden and Field Station on the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in 2002 – an important centre for global co-operation and conservation.

Peonies have been known in the physic gardens of Britain since medieval times, but it was China that cultivated and bred their many native species raising them to the status of the Imperial Flower. At Crathes peonies were a favourite flower of Lady Burnett who used them liberally all over the garden. Sir James Burnett added tree peonies, including some cultivars of Paeonia suffruticosa which did not survive. However, a P. suffruticosa now  grows on the Aviary Terrace and is labelled ‘Rockii’ – which is usually described as being  white with maroon patches. This Crathes plant is pink, but glorious all the same. Paeonia mlokosewitschii, known to all fans as Molly the witch, and a herbaceous peony, is charming despite her name. Lemony white and seemingly easy to grow she is present in many parts of the garden. Other peonies are not named, but can sometimes be guessed.

Tree Paeonia suffruticosa ‘Rockii’ on the Aviary Terrace, 17 May 2017.
Molly the witch, Paeonia mlokosewitschii on the Four Squares, 16 May 2020. Joanna Shaw.
Paeonia mlokosewitschii, 16 May 2020. Joanna Shaw.

Perhaps Paeonia lactiflora ‘Bowl of Beauty’, 4 July 2018.

One of the photographs sent by Joanna set me thinking about apples of which I am a devotee.

Ancient apple trees in the nursery yard, 9 May 2020. Joanna Shaw.

The four (or is it five?) ancient apple trees in the nursery used to grow in the Walled Garden opposite the Blue and Pink Border. For centuries Crathes was famed for its fruit and I feel a touch of sadness that the apples are now hidden away. We do not know what varieties they are, but there are plenty named crab apples around: some in the garden and many more out in the policies.

Crab apple, Malus ‘Prairie Fire’, Courthill New, 1 June 2016.
Malus ‘Veitch’s Scarlet’, 30 May 2016.
A Japanese crab apple, Malus toringo, Courthill New, 30 May 2016.
Malus ‘Evereste’, Courthill New, 31 October 2018.

In the last two years a few different varieties of crab apples have been planted up by the Viewpoint. With luck I may see the fruit in the autumn.

Malus ‘Royal Beauty’ in the Gardeners’ Yard and destined to line the path from the Viewpoint to the shop, 9 May 2018.

In the light of possible easing of Lockdown and with more gardeners returning to work we can only hope that we might all get back to the garden before too long. June is almost here; the June Border is usually at its best mid-June. Maybe a June return is too much to hope for, but perhaps by my next piece there will be more good news. Meantime enjoy some of May.

Auriculas in a container on the Aviary Terrace, 9 May 2020. Joanna Shaw.

Syringa vulgaris ‘Beauty of Moscow’, Doocot Border, 1 June 2016.
Syringa vulgaris ‘Primrose’, 24 May 2017.
Zantedeschia aethiopica, by the glasshouse, 21 May 2014.

Keep safe everyone.

4 thoughts on “The Imperial Flower

  1. At last I’ve had a chance to take my time and savour the gardens- virtually- again!
    I remember being taken to see the ‘handkerchief tree’ at Innes House by Mike Phillips… We were given a ‘mollythewitch’ some years ago but she never flourished in our rather poor border – so I appreciate the chance to see her in all her glory! Some beautiful photos cheering up a very grey day! Thank you for all your efforts and information!

    Liked by 1 person

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