In the Far East, and particularly in China, “the king of flowers” is a true object of cult. In 1000 B.C. it was already protected by the emperor who used to pay great sums of money for the most beautiful varieties, thus promoting hybridization and selection. Thanks to the imperial favor, peonies also became the prime decoration motif of Chinese porcelains, especially during the Ching and Ming dynasties.
In Europe, peonies existed in several species, all herbaceous, and in ancient times they were primarily known for their healing properties. According to Greek mythology, Peon, doctor of the gods and Aesculapius’ pupil, healed Pluto’s wounds using peony’s roots; the god, in order to express gratitude and to protect him from the envy of his colleagues, gave him the gift of immortality transforming him into a flower: the peony. In Europe, peonies became to be appreciated for their ornamental value only during the 18th century, after some English and French botanists introduced them; this is true especially for tree peonies that were, until then, unknown to Europeans. However, it was only at the beginning of the 20th century that – thanks to the efforts of the French botanists Louis Henry, Maxim Cornù and Pierre Lemoine – the first yellow peonies with enormous double flowers were bred. Such peonies were hybrids of Paeonia suffruticosa, cultivated for centuries in China and Japan, and of Paeonia lutea, a specie with yellow flowers first brought to Europe, together with the plant that will be named Paeonia delavavi, by Père Delavay at the end of the 19th century.
The first hybrids of Paeonia lutea, produced by the French, had a weak stem and a flower so heavy that it tended to flop to the ground thus making plant supports necessary to fully enjoy their ornamental effect. In order to fix this fault, during the 50’s the United State botanist Saunders, through a sequence of crosses aimed at strengthening the plant’s stem and vegetative strength, selected various hybrids with single, semi-double or double flowers that had great ornamental value and generally faster growth than both the varieties of Paeonia suffruticosa and the French hybrids of Paeonia lutea.
Other American amateurs carried on Saunders’ work; among them, worth mentioning are Gratwick and Nassos Daphnis, who created some of the most unusual and beautiful specimens of lutea hybrids available nowadays, such as ‘Leda’, ‘Zephirus’ and ‘Gauguin’, that owes its name to the astonishing chromatic effect created by its red and yellow flowers.
A great innovation in hybridization was later attained by the Japanese Toichi Itoh who successfully crossed a variety of Paeonia lactiflora with a hybrid of Paeonia lutea obtaining a plant that has the properties of both a herbaceous peony (fall withering of the leaves) and of a tree peony (multiple stems and form of the flowers).
The so-called Itoh hybrids or intersectional hybrids are, unfortunately, quite expensive and rare.
For six years, we have participated in Horti Fair in the