The story of emerging peonies and new roses

Posted: Friday, June 02, 2000

Plants have their own timetables, they keep their own schedules, answer to some other metronome than the one we hear. Rhythms and melodies in the sphere of botany are just as exact as those of astronomy or molecular biology. They proceed at rates internally consistent with the demands of their constituents, and they are just as unconcerned with our closing dates and visits by out of town relatives as are the angels.

Peonies arouse drowsily tousled and still partly dreaming from winter's senescence; they enter the aboveground world as if somnambulists. Their burden of nighttime thoughts include formation of brilliant tissues and heavily fertile anthers, uncoiling of rosy-fingered leaves and way off glimmers of the goal. Plants, flowers and all that attend them can be seen as a seed's way of making new seeds. The finish line of the whole growth, bud, bloom cycle is that fat, fecund pod of stored energy and information.

Animal life has been carefully guided and fed for millions of years, developed species by species to serve our chlorophyll-based masters. Pollinators, seed dispersers and manure providers, we fleshy races move unknowingly through our cycles. We believe ourselves to be captains of the voyage, while the real directors of the trip are acting so slowly as to be humanly imperceptible.

Mutual benefit is the medium in which we are paid; food, fiber and beauty are the coins. Peonies, like roses, chrysanthemums, tulips and many other treasured flowering species, have followed an ancient route to worldwide dispersal. Initial similarities in our chemistries created demand for the roots as medicinal elements, unsurprising since most chemically active substances originate as plant parts. Once domesticated, a process of collecting enough wild plants to have a breeding base and rearing seedlings to maturity, the world of hybridization opened.

Centuries ago peonies were sent to Chinese courts as tribute from far off lands. Powerful emperors and potentates collected the widely-dispersed tribes of the peonies into intimate garden bowers. They introduced the widely dispersed offspring of the first peoney ancestors and for the first time in a thousand generations these distant cousins met. The resulting mixtures of Turkish, Southeast Asian and Northern Chinese strains gave rise to the garden types we see now.

High Himalayan species crossed with ones from the Caucasus; French and Spanish species and fragrant Greek ones entered the gene pool and the complex interspecific breeds of our current availability lists began to show. Modern hybridizers are still creating peonies, Chinese varieties are being released into the anxious arms of western gardeners, and explorers and collectors are still pursuing new strains in exotic locales.

Roses too have domesticated the Humans: we serve as carriers, cultivators, hybridizers and caregivers to millions - no, to billions of rose plants all over the world. Rose breeders are constantly crossing and recrossing to achieve the hardiest, most fragrant, longest lasting blooms on reliable, easy to grow bushes.

Canadian breeders were given a mandate 20 years ago to develop roses for the colder regions of that country. The research station at Ottawa has released 20 new roses selected for cold hardiness, disease resistance and desirable flowering habits. Some of these are even climbers. They are all named for early explorers of the Canadian landmass like ``George Vancouver,'' ``John Cabot'' and ``William Baffin.''

The project was initiated in 1961, and has changed rose growing in the north from a chancy exercise in protecting and replacing to a reliable landscaping effort. My guest this week on the radio show ``Conversations with Alaskan Gardeners'' was Peggy Pijan. She and her husband David have a tremendous rose collection here in Juneau, the nicest one I know. She was enthusiastic about these new strains of roses and had already grown several of them with great success.

Peggy praised a breed of roses long grown in the English Islands, the ancient ``Alba Rose'' as being fragrant and tough enough for our climate. She named several roses as having ``Alba'' ancestors including one I have grown here called ``The Alchymist.'' We also discussed a good new yellow form called ``Golden Wings'' that bears abundantly with no protection. Peonies and roses are just a couple of the many plant species that have been associated with our civilization. We open part of our hearts to these companions, and they allow us to enjoy their secrets and fine qualities. We support them in their worldwide quest for space and offspring. A perfect partnership for both parties.

David Lendrum is a master gardener and, along with Margaret Tharp, owns Landscape Alaska. Any responses or questions can be sent to

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