It’s story time at Highdown Gardens… Our very own Gary Prescod, Head Gardener…


It’s story time at Highdown Gardens…

Our very own Gary Prescod, Head Gardener at Highdown, has yet another blog for you to enjoy this sunny Thursday afternoon. This week he’s sharing yet another beautiful piece of the garden’s history which is wreathed in mystery and romance:

Following on from last week’s blog about Peonies, there is one special tree peony which has opened its flower today. Much has been written about the fine tree peony Rock’s form of P. suffruticosa, a very rare plant in cultivation. The story is wreathed in mystery and romance, and Sir Frederick Stern plays a key role.

Dr Joseph Rock (1884-1962) was one of the last of the great plant hunters. Rock taught botany at the College of Hawaii and from 1920 until 1949, he explored, photographed, and collected plants in Asia for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Geographic Society, the Arnold Arboretum, and others.

In 1926, he sent seed of a specific peony back to the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, USA. The seed Dr Rock collected was from a plant in the garden of a lamasery (a monastery of lamas) at Choni in an almost unknown Tibetan principality in Gansu province. The lamas had told him that the peony came from the mountains of that district.

Of the plants grown on at the Arnold Arboretum, one plant was sent to Stern at Highdown in 1936. In his studies of peonies, Stern found that the flowers of this peony seemed to tally exactly with some wild plants seen and described by Reginald Farrer in 1913 in his book ‘On the Eaves of the World’. Farrer found the plants growing on hill sides in Southern Gansu, but did not collect any dried specimens or seeds. So the mysterious plant had been found, and was named Paeonia rockii, or Rock’s Peony in Dr Joseph Rock’s honour.

Stern was aware through correspondence with Rock that the lamasery and the garden where Rock collected this peony had been burnt to the ground and all the llamas killed by bandits in 1928. Sir Frederick was able to send seed back to Dr Rock in Tibet to restore the garden at Choni.

All who see this tree peony (and particularly those who are into tree peonies!) describe it as exquisite. The semi-double flowers are pure white with a pink blush, 20cm across, with deep purple staining at the base of each petal. The mass of golden stamens show up well against this purple base. The flower also has a strong smell, one of the strongest of peonies. This plant can grow large – up to 2m by 2m, but the original Highdown plant is long lost. We have a patch of plants that were raised as seedlings from the original, and final we got to compare the plants to the original. Here it is in its glory.

These days there’s some confusion as to the naming of P. rockii and its offspring, which are generally known as Gansu Mudan. However, we’re very proud at Highdown to have direct descendants of the original plant seen by Rock in the 1920s.