This stop is excerpted from Planting Edo, a field guide created in partnership with the Harvard Art Museums. The guide pairs Arboretum specimens with paintings from the Museums' exhibition Painting Edo: Japanese Art from the Feinberg Collection.
Despite their name, tree peonies are small shrubs. Their stems are woody, unlike the herbaceous peonies grown in gardens, and they are known for having oversized fragrant flowers—some over 6 inches in diameter! In East Asia, peonies have long been associated with luxuriant feminine beauty and especially with a Chinese imperial consort named Yang Guifei, one of the so-called Four Beauties of Ancient China. Her extraordinary beauty brought her to the attention of the emperor, who fell deeply in love with her, but Guifei was ultimately blamed for his downfall and the loss of the capital city to rebel invaders in 756.
Tree peonies bloom in a range of colors, including pink, purple, coral, yellow, and red; flowers can have single, semidouble, or double-form petals. These peonies can be found throughout the Painting Edo exhibition, such as in Peacock and Peonies by Maruyama Ōkyo (1733–1795). They are identifiable by their delicate, richly layered, and crinkled-edge petals that hide bright yellow centers and are surrounded by deep green leaves that typically grow in groups of three.
Maruyama Ōkyo, Peacock and Peonies, Japanese, Edo period, 1768. Hanging scroll; ink, color, and gold on silk. Harvard Art Museums, Promised gift of Robert S. and Betsy G. Feinberg, TL42147.17. Photo: John Tsantes and Neil Greentree; © Robert Feinberg.