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.
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.
It was a bit of a shock. My beautiful pure white peony was magenta!
It is beautiful and it has the lovely dark blotch at the base of the petals and the lovely golden stamens.
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.
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 Dickings’s 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.
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.