Fragrant Peonies of Beijing
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.
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.”
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