I had promised Catherine a story about my incredible visit to the Peony Festival at Luoyang in central China in April this year. It’s a bit late, as I have been travelling since then but here it is at last! Each Spring, a Festival to showcase the unofficial national flower of China, the treepeony is held in and around Luoyang, the capital of Henan Province and a ‘medium’ sized city of only 7 million people!!
Luoyang is one of the four great ancient capitals of China and is considered to be an important part of Chinese civilisation. The city is very large by our western standards and is expanding rapidly. The peony grows exceptionally well in this region and is quite naturally the city emblem with the festival bringing in literally millions of tourists, few of which are at this stage from the ‘west.’ So, it is a very important part of the annual Luoyang calendar and I was there as tour leader of a Ross Garden Tour – a first for the company.
We travelled to Luoyang in a 300 km per hour train from Xian which was fast and incredibly efficient. Powton trees in full flower everywhere alongside the tracks in farmland – a haze of dusky lilac with the odd white one to break the mould! In no time at all we were at Luoyang station and whisked away for the inevitable banquet lunch. But to the festival itself….
It is staggering in size with the garden growing in excess of 500,000 plants. I never did find out the acreage as all the answers differed but it is BIG with peony bushes covering at least an estimated 10 football fields in area and I think I am underestimating here! It was massive and unfortunately we were there on a Saturday mid festival on the 21st of April. It was packed with tens of thousands of visitors – it would have to have had at least a quarter of a million through the gates that day and they were all Chinese. Fantastic to see them enjoying such an amazing spectacle on a lovely warm spring day.
The peony is a revered flower in China and is considered to be a symbol of happiness and prosperity; so why wouldn’t one enthuse over it and buy huge bunches of plastic look-alikes on departure. That seemed a nice little earner as almost everyone was walking away with huge bunches of glitter encrusted peonies!
To the layout of the ‘park’ – there was no particular theme or colour co-ordinated plan. Some peonies were growing under shade cloth, whilst the bulk of them were in randomly shaped ‘beds’ some of which were raised. All were fenced off but this didn’t deter the over enthusiastic hopping the fence for family photographs – much to the annoyance of whistle blowing guards! The soil looked like quite compacted reddish clay which had been ‘turned over’ a bit in between some plants to keep down the weeds. There wasn’t any evidence of mulch or signs of fertiliser and all the plants looked very healthy.
I have never seen peonies like we saw there – nor ever will again. The colours and sheer volume of the blooms was overwhelming – ranging from pure white through to the darkest of purples and all stops in between. Then there were singles, doubles, bi-colours and the biggest blooms I have ever seen – they were massive and often up to 20 cm+ in diameter. Later on when in France and then England in May/June, we saw a few peonies which others were oohing and aahing over. I couldn’t get the least bit excited as I had witnessed the spectacle of massed peony plantings at Luoyang!!
The timing was perfect as hardly a flower was ‘blown’ or going over – most were at their perfect peak and a few still in bud. Yes, it’s crowded, yes, it’s a bit tatty around the edges but heck it’s one hell of a place to visit if you are a plant lover or just for an incredible experience.
Throw in a visit to the Longmen Caves as well for another unforgettable moment. Situated close to Luoyang on the banks of the Yi River, these caves set in the cliffside are awe inspiring and include the 17m high Vairocana Buddha. It is a massive complex stretching over about 1 kilometre.
I don’t think my group got as excited as I did when I saw Chinese foxgloves (Rhemannia) growing and flowering on the cliff face!
Sadly, peonies don’t really like the fickle Sydney climate – so I’ll have to move! A tree or herbaceous peony in full voluptuous flower has to be one of the best horticultural moments – multiply that by 500,000 and you will know why I was excited!