Fra­grant Peonies of Bei­jing

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS -

The sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy and in­no­va­tion em­bod­ied in Bei­jing’s peonies are shap­ing a more pros­per­ous fu­ture for a new in­dus­try.

Only the peony has true na­tional beauty; at the flow­er­ing sea­son it stirs the cap­i­tal city.”

As can be in­ferred from the poem by Liu Yuxi (AD 772–842, a Chi­nese poet, philoso­pher, and es­say­ist), peony flow­ers have “beau­ti­fied” a thou­sand years of Chi­nese his­tory. The present-day peony, how­ever, is more than a beau­ti­ful plant that’s used for or­na­men­tal or medic­i­nal pur­poses: in 2017, at “The Sec­ond Bei­jing Fes­ti­val of Peony Sci­ence and Cul­ture,” the Gu­ose Peony Park in Dayushu Town, Yan­qing Dis­trict, Bei­jing, not only ex­hib­ited over one mil­lion na­tive and for­eign peonies with over six hun­dred va­ri­eties, but also many peony prod­ucts such as seed oil, fa­cial masks and flower tea, which have at­tracted count­less tourists. The sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy and in­no­va­tion em­bod­ied in the peony prod­ucts are shap­ing a more pros­per­ous fu­ture for this new in­dus­try.

Cul­ti­vat­ing Peonies in Bei­jing

Leg­end has it that dur­ing the Tang Dy­nasty (AD 618–907), after Em­press Wu Ze­tian (reign: AD 690–705) as­cended to the throne, she adopted the im­pe­rial exam sys­tem and re­formed the lo­cal ad­min­is­tra­tion, thus in­spir­ing great awe through­out the coun­try. In the twelfth month of the lu­nar year, she wanted to roam around the im­pe­rial gar­den, but at the time no flow­ers were bloom­ing. Des­per­ately ea­ger to see the flow­ers, she wrote an edict: “To­mor­row morn­ing I shall visit the im­pe­rial gar­den; please in­form spring at once. The flow­ers must come out tonight be­fore the morn­ing breeze blows.”

After hear­ing the of­fi­cial or­der, the god in charge of flow­ers was re­luc­tant to force them to bloom in the cold win­ter, but since Wu Ze­tian was the “Em­press un­der the Man­date of Heaven,” he dared not defy her, so he or­dered all the flow­ers to bloom overnight. The next day, as the flow­ers were in full bloom, Wu was quite sat­is­fied. Nev­er­the­less, when she ar­rived at the peony sec­tion, she found only bare branches. The fact re­mained, the peony fairy, who thought Wu was too dom­i­neer­ing, ig­nored her edict. Em­press Wu was so fu­ri­ous that she or­dered that the peonies be re­moved from the royal gar­den and re­lo­cated to Luoyang. Although de­moted, the peony flow­ers still bloomed in ac­cor­dance with the sea­son, and be­came even more bril­liant than be­fore. As a re­sult, Wu, who was un­able to re­strain his fury any longer, sent men to Louyang to light the peonies on fire. The peonies had such a te­na­cious vi­tal­ity, how­ever, that even through their roots had been burnt black, and they didn’t wither but rather bloomed much more vig­or­ously. In praise of their

lofty and un­yield­ing char­ac­ter, peo­ple called them “Jiaogu Peonies” or “Luoyang Reds.”

This is the pop­u­lar leg­end of “Wuze­tian De­motes the Peony.” But le­gends are le­gends; Chi­nese peo­ple be­gan cul­ti­vat­ing peonies for ap­pre­ci­a­tion pur­poses dur­ing the Sui Dy­nasty (AD 581–618); then they thrived in the Tang Dy­nasty and were re­searched in the Song Dy­nasty (AD 960–1279). Per­haps peo­ple saw peonies bloom in the late spring for such a long time that the peony fairy’s leg­endary “lofty and un­yield­ing char­ac­ter” is more of an “ex­cuse” used by those who are fond of this flower; how­ever peonies, which are fa­mous for their charm and el­e­gance, have also left an im­pres­sion on many peo­ple that “peonies are dif­fi­cult to grow.”

In fact, due to the long cul­ti­va­tion process, peonies have be­come adapt­able to a wide va­ri­ety of en­vi­ron­ments, and can grow well in many places north of the Yangtze River; Bei­jing be­ing one of them. Ac­cord­ing to Cheng Xinyun, leader of Gu­ose Peony Park, peonies have ap­peared since the Liao (AD 916–1125) and Jin (1115–1234) dy­nas­ties founded their cap­i­tals in Bei­jing. The cul­ti­va­tion of peonies de­vel­oped to a large scale dur­ing the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dy­nas­ties be­cause peonies were com­monly used in land­scape de­sign. In re­cent years, now that the brand “Bei­jing Peony” has been launched, a se­ries of new peony va­ri­eties that uses “京” (Jing) as the first char­ac­ter in its name has been grad­u­ally ac­cepted into peo­ple’s lives; “Jing Yun Guan” (lit­er­ally “Bei­jing Cloudy Crown”) and “Jingmo Sa­jin” (lit­er­ally “Bei­jing Splashed Golden Ink”)—that de­buted at The Sec­ond Bei­jing Fes­ti­val of Peony Sci­ence and Cul­ture—are newly cul­ti­vated va­ri­eties of “Bei­jing Peony.”

“The deep pur­plish red one is called ‘Jingmo Sa­jin,’ and the jade white one is ‘Jing Yun Guan’.” Cheng Xinyun said both peonies are new va­ri­eties that were bred in Bei­jing and are the new re­sults of the Na­tional Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy Sup­port Pro­gramme and the Na­tional High Tech­nol­ogy Re­search and De­vel­op­ment Pro­gramme (863 Pro­gramme). He also said a full-grown “Jingmo Sa­jin” plant can reach a height of 1.2 me­tres. It has long ten­der shoots, which are con­ducive to sprout­ing tillers, and flow­ers that are mostly crown-shaped. Due to the dif­fer­ences in cul­ti­va­tion con­di­tions, they could as­sume other shapes, such as that of the anemone, chrysan­the­mum, or lo­tus flower, and are char­ac­ter­ized by hav­ing erect heads, large di­am­e­ters, early flo­res­cence, and a rich fra­grance. In con­trast, the “Jing Yun Guan” has pure white flow­ers that are crown­shaped, erect, and medium in di­am­e­ter. It also grows long shoots, and sprouts tillers rapidly. The “Jing Yun Guan” is bred by se­lec­tion from the nat­u­rally cross­bred ziban peony (Rock’s peony or Paeo­nia rockii). It was not re­ported as a new va­ri­ety un­til its salient fea­tures and out­stand­ing mer­its were con­firmed after con­tin­u­ous ob­ser­va­tion and prop­a­gat­ing three­gen­er­a­tions through graft­ing.

“Though they made their de­but re­cently, we’ve been breed­ing the two peony va­ri­eties for more than ten years.” Cheng Xinyun said it was ex­tremely time-con­sum­ing to breed and study peony va­ri­eties: “After you sow the seeds, you have to wait five or six years for the de­sired flower. When you have a cross­bred cul­ti­var, you must ob­serve its char­ac­ter. As its char­ac­ter sta­bilises, you need to take it some­where else to do some test plant­ing. You can’t re­port the cul­ti­var as a new one to un­dergo ex­am­i­na­tion and ap­proval un­til you’ve achieved good ex­per­i­men­tal re­sults.” To­day, owing to the con­stant ad­vances in re­search, ex­perts from Gu­ose Peony Park, are car­ry­ing out adapt­abil­ity stud­ies to breed peony va­ri­eties that are cold and drought re­sis­tant. But, they’re also us­ing flo­res­cence ma­nip­u­la­tion tech­nol­ogy to lengthen the flow­er­ing sea­son—that ex­tends only ten­odd days—of the ma­jor­ity of peony va­ri­eties. Hav­ing made break­throughs with some key tech­nolo­gies, they’re able to lengthen the sea­son by 45 days in cur­rent nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ments, whereas in a green­house, they can make peonies bloom all year round.

Oil Peonies

For ages, peonies have been val­ued for or­na­men­tal and medic­i­nal pur­poses; how­ever, peonies are heav­ily re­stricted be­cause their flow­er­ing sea­son is short and only its bark can be used as medicine. In 2011, the Min­istry of Health (to­day’s Na­tional Health and Fam­ily Plan­ning Com­mis­sion) li­censed peony seed oil to be a “new re­source food.” Since then, it has been listed as an ed­i­ble oil, and the term oil peony has also

be­come in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar.

Com­pared with the com­mon or­na­men­tal peony, un­doubt­edly, the oil peony seems rather strange to a lot of peo­ple. It’s a good woody oil plant that has “three highs and one low”: high out­put, high oil con­tent, high qual­ity and low cost. Re­sis­tant to drought and poor soil, it can make bare moun­tains green, and can also be planted in the woods. The oil ex­tracted from peony seeds, which con­tains a high amount of α-linolenic acid, has the fol­low­ing qual­i­ties: beauty main­te­nance, anti-ag­ing, anti-de­pres­sion and other ef­fects. There­fore, it is an ed­i­ble oil of su­pe­rior qual­ity. In De­cem­ber 2014, the Gen­eral Of­fice of the State Coun­cil pro­mul­gated the Opin­ions on Ac­cel­er­at­ing the De­vel­op­ment of the Woody Oil In­dus­try (the Opin­ions) that pro­posed ac­cel­er­at­ing the de­vel­op­ment of the wood­based oil in­dus­try, in­creas­ing the sup­ply of healthy, high-qual­ity, ed­i­ble veg­etable oil, and pro­tect­ing the safety of na­tional grains and oils. The oil peony was one of the three ma­jor woody oil plants that were men­tioned.

The de­vel­op­ment of the oil peony has be­come a ma­jor di­rec­tion for pro­mot­ing the mod­ern de­vel­op­ment of the peony in­dus­try. Ac­cord­ing to the re­quire­ments of the Min­istry of Health, be­cause only two species— ” dan­feng” (paeo­nia os­tii) and “ziban” (Rock’s peony)—are suit­able for use, they’re re­garded as an im­por­tant foun­da­tion for de­vel­op­ing the peony in­dus­try so that valu­able va­ri­eties of oil peony can be breed which are high in out­put, oil con­tent and qual­ity, and con­sis­tent dur­ing the mat­u­ra­tion pe­riod. Gu­ose Peony Park, the host of the Fes­ti­val of Peony Sci­ence and Cul­ture, is one of China’s im­por­tant bases for studying and breed­ing new peony va­ri­eties. With an area of more than 30 hectares, this park, which was built in 2012 at the foot of Yuhuang Moun­tain near Fu­gaoy­ing Vil­lage, Dayushu Town, Yan­qing Dis­trict, pri­mar­ily stud­ies and breeds new peony va­ri­eties. At the same time, it has col­lected over 600 good va­ri­eties, or id­io­plasms, of ma­jor peonies from all around the world, and is also China’s prin­ci­pal peony gene bank and de­vel­op­ment cen­tre.

“Gu­ose Peony Park mainly grows ziban peonies, a species adapt­able to the north­ern part of China,” said Cheng Xinyun. “Com­pared with the zhongyuan peony (cen­tral plains peony) of Heze, this kind of peony has some ad­van­tages. The zhongyuan peonies can be planted in the Yel­low River Val­ley, but if you move them to the North­east, they can’t sur­vive the win­ter. Our ziban peony, on the other hand, can sur­vive the win­ter. The key to grow­ing oil peony is the seeds, so se­lect­ing and breed­ing seeds is a ma­jor con­cern.” Fur­ther­more, although there are many va­ri­eties of oil peony in Gu­ose Peony Park, the newly bred va­ri­eties are not only for oil pur­poses: “We have bred va­ri­eties for both ap­pre­ci­a­tion and for oil seeds, such as ‘Jinghua Qingxue’ (lit­er­ally ‘Bei­jing Fresh Snow’) and ‘Jin­g­long Wangyue’ (lit­er­ally ‘Bei­jing Dragon Watch­ing Moon’).”

Shan­dong and He­nan have be­gun grow­ing oil peony on a large scale; in com­par­i­son, Bei­jing has a smaller peony plant­ing area, but it still plays a preva­lent role pro­mot­ing the mod­ern de­vel­op­ment of the peony in­dus­try. Gu­ose Peony Park has es­tab­lished ten tech­no­log­i­cal cri­te­ria for breed­ing peony va­ri­eties, grow­ing pot­ted flow­ers, cut­ting flow­ers, sow­ing seeds, grow­ing seedlings, and so forth. The park is now pop­u­lar­is­ing the tech­nol­ogy used for breed­ing large-scale ziban peonies, as well as tech­nol­ogy for plant­ing oil seed peonies in the woods, by pro­vid­ing tech­no­log­i­cal ser­vices to a large num­ber of en­ter­prises in Shaanxi, Shanxi, He­bei, Hubei, Gansu, Ningxia, Fu­jian and Liaon­ing.

Gu­ose Peony Park, in the field of breed­ing new peony va­ri­eties, de­vel­op­ing new tech­nol­ogy re­search, and pop­u­lar­is­ing re­sults with demon­stra­tions, has taken the lead both in China and abroad, es­tab­lish­ing zones or bases that com­bine sci­en­tific re­search, pro­duc­tion, and sight­see­ing into a sin­gle lo­ca­tion: the na­tional stan­dard demon­stra­tion zone for peony plant­ing (Bei­jing), the sci­en­tific and tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion of the Bei­jing gar­den green­ing demon­stra­tion zone, the re­search and de­vel­op­ment base of the Na­tional Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy Sup­port Pro­gramme and the Na­tional High Tech­nol­ogy Re­search and De­vel­op­ment Pro­gramme (863 Pro­gramme), and the new flower va­ri­eties breed­ing base of Bei­jing World Park. Mean­while, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Bei­jing mu­nic­i­pal de­part­ment of forestry, Bei­jing Forestry Univer­sity has bred more than 20 new va­ri­eties with pro­pri­etary in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty rights, fin­ished over 400 cross com­bi­na­tions of peonies and pre­served a large batch of hy­brid seeds, in which a great num­ber of oil peony va­ri­eties, as an im­por­tant com­po­nent, were in­cluded. Cheng Fangyun, a pro­fes­sor from Bei­jing Forestry Univer­sity, said: “In grow­ing pot­ted flow­ers, grow­ing seedlings, and cut­ting flow­ers, we es­tab­lished a set of cri­te­ria, not only pro­vid­ing tech­no­log­i­cal sup­port and stan­dards to peony plant­ing en­ter­prises in Shanxi, Shaanxi, He­bei, Hubei, and Gansu, but also mak­ing Bei­jing one of China’s im­por­tant cen­tres for pro­mot­ing the mod­ern peony in­dus­try.”

In­no­va­tive Breed­ing

Breed­ing good seeds is the foun­da­tion for de­vel­op­ing the oil peony in­dus­try, but be­cause the oil peony is de­rived from the medic­i­nal peony, whose seeds are only “byprod­ucts,” and be­cause peo­ple have long bred peony va­ri­eties mainly for ap­pre­ci­a­tion pur­poses, there is a lack of good seeds and strong seedlings, causes a bot­tle­neck that ham­pers the peony in­dus­try. As the prob­lem of ex­pand­ing re­pro­duc­tion has not been tack­led yet, and since sig­nif­i­cant break­throughs in peony tis­sue cul­ture have not been achieved, how to im­prove the re­pro­duc­tion ra­tio has gen­er­ated wide­spread con­cern. Cheng Xinyun said peo­ple mostly em­ploy the peony graft­ing tech­nol­ogy called “top bud graft­ing,” which not only causes dis­si­pa­tion but also has low work ef­fi­ciency: “Dozens of peo­ple can’t graft many in a day.”

Not far from the en­trance to Gu­ose Peony Park, hun­dreds of peony stalks, just wa­tered and prop­a­gated by cut­ting, are shin­ning in the sun. Cheng Xinyun said that since 2015, re­searchers from Gu­ose Peony Park have been studying cut­ting

prop­a­ga­tion tech­nol­ogy: “In the past, one peony could re­pro­duce only once, and might not sur­vive; but since cut­ting was em­ployed, one peony can re­pro­duce quite a few times and they can all sur­vive. So the re­pro­duc­tion ra­tio im­proved.” “Be­cause cut­ting has sea­sonal re­stric­tions, we must per­form the cut­ting on new shoots soon after the flow­er­ing sea­son ends. From cut­ting to root­ing, it takes about a month, but this tech­nol­ogy has not yet ma­tured. There are very few peo­ple in China th­ese days, who are do­ing like­wise, that have achieved re­sults. But we’ve never stopped, and have at­tained good re­sults now.”

With the de­vel­op­ment of mod­ern agri­cul­ture, breed­ing new peony va­ri­eties is no longer lim­ited to tra­di­tional meth­ods such as graft­ing and cut­ting. How­ever, due to the peony’s bi­o­log­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions, cul­ti­vat­ing new va­ri­eties is both time- con­sum­ing and la­bo­ri­ous, so mod­ern molec­u­lar breed­ing has be­come an im­por­tant chan­nel to elim­i­nate the lim­i­ta­tions of tra­di­tional breed­ing. There­fore, con­struct­ing a high- den­sity ge­netic map is an im­por­tant job for mod­ern peony molec­u­lar breed­ing.

Be­cause the growth cy­cle of peonies is long, the ge­netic struc­ture com­pli­cated, and the foun­da­tion for molec­u­lar bi­ol­ogy weak, it is ex­tremely dif­fi­cult to con­struct the ge­netic map. Since 2008, Bei­jing Forestry Univer­sity has been con­duct­ing re­search on the peony high­den­sity ge­netic map: a to­tal of 141 hy­brid iso­lates were es­tab­lished, com­bined with molec­u­lar marker de­tec­tion tech­nol­ogy, and F1 iso­lates ob­tained from cross­breed­ing “Feng­dan Bai” (Paeo­nia os­tia) and “Hong Qiao” (a Cen­tral Plains Cul­ti­var with red flow­ers) were iden­ti­fied as map­ping groups. On this ba­sis, Cai Changfu, a doc­toral stu­dent from Bei­jing Forestry Univer­sity, ran­domly se­lected 195 in­di­vid­ual peonies to carry out SLAF (Spe­cific-lo­cus Am­pli­fied Frag­ment Se­quenc­ing) re­duced-rep­re­sen­ta­tion ge­nomic se­quenc­ing un­der the guid­ance of Cheng Fangyun. From over 80,000 poly­mor­phic SLAF mark­ers, he de­vel­oped 3,518 valid mark­ers.

After analysing the geno­type data of se­lected pop­u­la­tions, he con­structed the first peony high-den­sity ge­netic map. This new re­sult has laid an im­por­tant the­o­ret­i­cal foun­da­tion for car­ry­ing out the molec­u­lar marker-as­sisted se­lec­tion of peony, con­trol­ling the map­ping of im­por­tant gene traits, ex­plor­ing the ge­netic mech­a­nisms of im­por­tant agro­nomic traits, genome se­quence as­sem­bling and other re­search. At the same time, it plays an im­por­tant guid­ance role for im­prov­ing the tar­get ori­en­ta­tion of peony breed­ing, short­en­ing the breed­ing pe­riod, in­ten­tion­ally se­lect­ing and breed­ing new va­ri­eties, and is also of great sig­nif­i­cance for the trans­for­ma­tion and up­grad­ing of the peony in­dus­try.

Over the years, re­searchers have also made dra­matic break­throughs and sub­stan­tial progress in breed­ing and in­dus­tri­al­is­ing new peony va­ri­eties. To en­hance the ca­pa­bil­ity of in­de­pen­dent in­no­va­tion, to raise the level of in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion, and to in­crease the abil­ity in in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion, re­searchers— un­der the lead­er­ship of Cheng Fangyun and Cheng Xinyun—have tack­led key sci­en­tific and tech­no­log­i­cal dif­fi­cul­ties, mar­shalled sys­tem­at­i­cally the re­sources of peony va­ri­eties, and car­ried out cross­breed­ing by us­ing wild peonies and ad­vanced gen­er­a­tion hy­brids and va­ri­eties. As a re­sult, they have over­come the in­com­pat­i­bil­ity of dis­tant hy­bridi­s­a­tion and the steril­ity of hy­brids, and cross­bred, be­tween peony and Chi­nese herba­ceous peony, five new dis­tant hy­brid va­ri­eties, seven cut flower va­ri­eties, and five new va­ri­eties for both or­na­men­tal and oil pur­poses. The “Key Tech­nolo­gies and Ap­pli­ca­tions for Cul­ti­vat­ing and In­dus­tri­al­is­ing New Peony Va­ri­eties” re­sults won the Liangxi Forestry Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy Award sec­ond prize in 2016. Breed­ing has brought about 17 new va­ri­eties that have plant va­ri­ety rights and for which three na­tional in­ven­tion patents were granted. The re­sults, if pop­u­larised and ap­plied, will pro­duce ob­vi­ous so­cial and eco­nomic ben­e­fits.

Although the flow­er­ing sea­son has passed, the lux­u­ri­antly green peony plants in Gu­ose Peony Park still al­low peo­ple to see a scene of hun­dreds of bloom­ing flow­ers. Peony, noted for its or­na­men­tal and eco­nomic val­ues, has shown to have tremen­dous po­ten­tial and a pros­per­ous fu­ture.

Kids sketch­ing peonies at the Gu­ose Peony Park in Bei­jing

Trans­lated by Sun Hong­shan Edited by Greg S. Vanisky Photo by Bu Xiang­dong Photo cour­tesy of Gu­ose Peony Park

Peonies in blos­som

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