Paeonia suffruticosa ssp. rockii.

The story of the Chinese tree peony known as ‘Rockii’  is one that is wreathed in mystery and romance. In fact the plant is almost legendary because it is highly probable that all the plants that we know by this name are hybrids. The plant is renowned for the large white flowers with golden stamens and a maroon, almost black blotch at the base of the petals. It is a thing of exquisite beauty.

It was first spotted and noted by Reginald Farrer in Southern Kansu in 1913. It was not until the 1920s that Joseph Rock  found a plant that fitted the description growing in the Lamasery: (Budhhist monastery)  at Choni. He collected seeds, not from the wild, but from this plant and sent them to the US, Britain, Canada and Sweden.  In 1928 the Lamasery was burnt to the ground and all the lamas were killed by Muslims. Today, all the Rockii peonies in the Western world are descendants of this plant. The problem is that peonies hybridise readily and so all the offspring come out different. The plants from seeds sent to the Arnold Arboretum in the US were slightly different to the ones that Frederick Stern raised at his home Highdown in England.  Frederick Stern was remarkably generous with his seeds but he grew a lot of peonies and had very busy bees.

I did not realise all this when I spotted  ‘Paeonia rockii ‘Rock’s Variety’ in the Chiltern Seeds catalogue six or seven years ago. I had been desperate to own one of these peonies since I had seen it growing in Ivan Dickings garden in Suffolk years ago. Ivan was the very talented chief propagator for Notcutts in Woodbridge, Suffolk, and he had propagated material vegetatively, from Frederick Stern’s  original rockii peony. So this peony was as close to the original as it is possible to get. I wish I had taken a photo so that I could show it to you. I assure you it would be love at first sight.

I bought my seeds  from Chilterns and started a very long wait. After a year the first shoots appeared and I had six little plants. (The first year nothing appears to be happening because they are busy putting out a little root.) Four succulent shoots got eaten by mice and never recovered, so I cherished my remaining two plants and they grew strong and healthy, and so they should have with all the pampering they received. I posted a picture of the plump flower bud on one of them in early April. The other had a bud too, but not so advanced.
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The excitement of waiting for these buds to open was almost too much to bear. A couple of days ago I went down the garden on my usual prowl to find this.

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It was a bit of a shock. My beautiful pure white peony was magenta!
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It is beautiful and it has the lovely dark blotch at the base of the petals and the lovely golden stamens.
IMG_8304 But magenta? I was a little disappointed. But never mind, the other one was still to open, perhaps this would be closer to the beautiful white peony that I had dreamed of. Well today, at last  it is beginning to open and this is what it looks like.
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It is a lovely soft pink and I like the slightly darker veining on the petals. I hope it will have the lovely bilberry coloured blotch. I think it will be beautiful when it is fully open but it is still not what I was expecting. I do have two lovely tree peonies but not the elusive white one.

I do still have one chance left. Three years ago I started off some seeds from Ivan Dickens’ original peony, the one that I fell in love with years ago. I didn’t notice when the little shoots first appeared and unfortunately they all got eaten off, apart from one. This one is now growing nicely and I have planted it in the garden. Here it is. I can assure you it is growing in my best home made compost and gets every care and attention lavished on it. Maybe in three or four years I will be proudly showing you a big white peony flower which looks very close to that of the original plant found by Joseph Rock growing in the Lamestry.
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It is confusing and incorrect when hybrids like mine are called ‘Joseph Rock’, ‘Rockii’ or ‘Rock’s Variety’. They should be called Gansu Mudan. That is the correct name. If people  would only use the correct name then innocents like me  wouldn’t spend six or seven years growing something that is lovely but not the real thing.

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38 Responses to Paeonia suffruticosa ssp. rockii.

  1. Alison says:

    What a disappointment that it’s not what you wanted. They are both very beautiful, though. They remind me of poppies.

  2. mrsdaffodil says:

    I do admire your patience and determination. Eaten by mice, years of waiting, wrong colour: my goodness! I know what it’s like to yearn for a particular plant, and Paeonia suffruticosa ssp. rockii is definitely on my list. I have a tiny one right now, much smaller than your “last chance” peony, and visions of white flowers with a dark maroon blotch at the base are dancing through my mind. I’ll have to wait a few years, though. What an interesting story about the Lamasery. Altogether, a very enjoyable post.

    • Chloris says:

      How old is yours? Is it a seed grown one or is it grafted? It seems like a long time but it is worth the wait.

      • mrsdaffodil says:

        It’s from seed. I got it bare root and planted it about three weeks ago. It’s tiny–really tiny–but it’s alive. It’s worth the wait, for sure: I’ve seen one in full bloom in Vancouver.

  3. Kris P says:

    They’re beautiful peonies and I’m mightily impressed by the fact that you grew them from seed. However, I do understand the disappointment of discovering the wrong color after that patient waiting period. I had a similar experience with a vine that was supposed to have lavender blooms. It failed to produce flowers of any kind for 3 years and, when the foliage covered an entire wall and it finally bloomed, it was orange, which definitely did not fit with the surrounding plants. Gardening is a never-ending surprise.

    • Chloris says:

      It is indeed a never- ending surprise and that is what makes it such fun. What did you do with your vine? Did you keep it?

      • Kris P says:

        Yes, I left the vine in place. It flowered so rarely, it wasn’t much of an issue and the foliage was of greater value in that spot. That was at our former house – who knows if its still there now.

  4. Cathy says:

    I hope you’ll show us a photo of the second one when it opens. I love them both, and despite the initial disappointment I hope you get to love them too!

    • Chloris says:

      I know they are lovely,and I am excited about the pale pink one. Maybe I will save seeds and see what colour the next generation will turn out.

  5. Cathy says:

    Thanks you so much for sharing more of your wealth of knowledge, Chloris. Growing peonies from seed was an achievement in itself but I can sense that disappointment you felt when your bud opened as magenta instead of white, and your second one opened as pink…. They are still very beautiful, and you do have that third plant….

    • Chloris says:

      You are right Cathy there is no such thing as an ugly tree peony, especially if they have that lovely black blotch. If you would like to try growing some yourself I can send you some seeds when they are ready. I don’ t suppose they will be white but I am sure they will be lovely.

      • Cathy says:

        Thanks for the offer, Chloris, but I haven’t really anywhere for a tree peony so I will say ‘no’ to the challenge of raising one from seed

  6. Julie says:

    This was a roller coaster of events, I really enjoy your reading your narrative and hope you are showing us the Peony you love so much too.

  7. Chloris says:

    Thank you Julie. It is exciting growing things from seed and part of the fun is waiting to see how things will turn out. With these seed grown peonies it seems that no two are the same.

  8. pbmgarden says:

    What an interesting tale Chloris. Sorry for your frustration in this part of the adventure. Very lovely flowers though nonetheless. susie

  9. Chloris says:

    Peonies are all lovely.At this time of the year I feel like filling the whole garden with peonies, irises and roses.

  10. Flighty says:

    They are lovely flowers but I much prefer white so I would be most put out if that happened to me, especially after waiting all that time!
    Fingers crossed that your last chance one is what you want. xx

  11. sueturner31 says:

    Amazing …flowers and your patience….

  12. Chloris says:

    Well the great thing about growing things from seed, even if they take years to bloom, is that you can be doing other things while you wait. These tree peonies are eye- wateringly expensive if you buy a mature plant so it is worth doing. As long as you are relaxed about the colour.

  13. Alain says:

    Good luck with the elusive white beauty. They are curious tree peonies. When I moved here, one of mine which had always produced double pink flowers started to produce single blooms. I thought the grafted part had died and I was getting the rootstock bloom. But no, after a few years the plant forgave me for uprooting it and went back to producing double blooms!

  14. Oh dear, what a mixed tale! I loved learning about peonies, a somewhat tragic back story. Impressive to grow these from seed, but after all that time and effort I can understand you being disappointed, despite having two beautiful plants.

    • Chloris says:

      I am coming round to them now, after all if I hadn’ t expected them to be white I’ d have been delighted. Two beautiful tree peonies from one packet of seeds. And I still have my little one to look forward to.

  15. Debra says:

    But what an adventure! Congratulations. I am sorry it was not what you were expecting but it is lovely. I love the Chilterns catalogue but I haven’t bought anything from them in years. I used to love choosing obscure and weird seeds just for the challenge. I admire your perseverance.

  16. Chloris says:

    I adore the Chilterns seed catalogue, I love it that there are no pictures, just the written descriptions. I have had some wonderful surprises from it and some disappointments too. It’s all part of the fun of growing things from seed.

  17. False advertising of the most insidious kind! Still, they are beautiful peonies, and cannot be blamed for the carelessness or dishonesty of others.

    • Chloris says:

      They are beautiful, specially the pale pink one one. The great think with peonies is that they live for a long time, specially if they are grown on their own roots, and they just go on getting better and better.

  18. Anna says:

    Oh Chloris I can imagine both your anticipation and then the ensuing disappointment. What a shame that such patience was rewarded by imposters albeit beautiful ones. I wonder if those mice nibbled a white flowering one. At least you’ve got the real thing with the baby so hang on in there. The little one has most attractive foliage too to entertain you whilst you wait.

    • Chloris says:

      I can’ t be sure that the little one will be white, even though I know who its mother is. The bees may well have been busy. But never mind growing them is great fun.

  19. Christina says:

    I was going to say “what a shame” but I’m not; you’ve been patient and clever enough to grow two very beautiful peonies, enjoy them Chloris and just maybe you’ve grown one that will become famous! Well, perhaps.

    • Chloris says:

      It’s not very clever. The most difficult thing is to stop them being chewed. I don’ t think either of these two will be famous but I think I might carry on and grow some more. You never know what you will get with peonies. It is fun.

  20. Annette says:

    Very enjoyable post as usual and fair play to you for growing them from seed. I’m not that willing to wait and have just given seeds of very special peonies away…if I’d known of your passion I would have happily sent them to you, Chloris.

  21. Chloris says:

    Thank you Annette, this has made me want to try growing more peonies, you never know what you will get. I have a wonderful book by Peter Smithers called Adventures of a Gardener. He shows photos of superb tree peonies he bred. I know it is a long wait but you do get on with other things while they are growing. And then you never know what a gorgeous surprise awaits you.

  22. Oh, what a shame! It showed amazing patience on your part, growing them from seed, to be disappointed, after all the anticipation, in the end. Take consolation from the fact that they are unique and beautiful in their own right! And with a bit of luck, and more patience, you’ll have the real thing in 3-4 years time. Thank you, too, for your background info – you are helping to increase my horticultural knowledge!

  23. Is this the same Farrer who wrote the rock garden book? Good luck with peony #3.

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