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Rockefeller Park's Peony Monument

 A Gift from Japan Proves a Pleasure for Bees and People Alike


In March 2002, the Japanese town of of Yatsuka-Cho announced that it wished to donate 500 tree peonies to Rockefeller State Park Preserve as a token of sympathy commemorating the tragedy of September 11, 2001. Yatsuka-Cho promised an identical donation to Brooklyn Botanical Garden, and the following fall, shipped 1000 peonies to New York.  Gardeners and horticulturalists from Yatsuka-Cho arrived in the park ahead of the shipment, in order to prepare the garden beds for planting.


But misfortune struck – on the first leg of their journey, the peonies arrived in California during a dockworkers’ strike. The peonies languished in their crates until the labor dispute ended. When the plants arrived in New York, Rockefeller Park's staff members received a terrible shock:  they opened container after container of three-year-old peonies, packed carefully in sawdust -- only to find that all the plants were dead.


Yatsuka-Cho refused to accept defeat. The town, which has been cultivating tree peonies in the Shimane prefecture of Japan since the 18th century, renewed its pledge. Two months later, on December 2, 2002, a new peony shipment arrived-- this time via plane.  The peonies came accompanied by a letter from Yatsuka-Cho that read in part: ''These flowers bring us happiness and comfort in times of trouble. We hope that these peonies, carefully raised by the producers in our town, can also be loved by and bring peace of mind to the people of the United States.''


The Peony Monument, as the garden is now called, has thrived. Yatsuka-Cho sent follow-up horticulturalists to the garden for its first three years to assure the proper care of the peonies.  And since 2002, a team of dedicated RSPP volunteer gardeners has provided continuing expert care for the Peony Monument.  It is now in its thirteenth year. 


The tree peony in Japan is called the King of Flowers, and the garden bears testament to why:  its flowers are large and flamboyant and emanate scents as varied and nuanced as those of exotic roses.  Tree peonies (Paeonia suffruticosa) are more formidable than the herbaceous peonies commonly  seen in New York.  Tree peonies can live as long as ninety years; reach more than five feet in height; and sport flowers the size of dinner plates. They do not die back to the ground each winter, but instead grow slowly throughout the year, supported by sturdy stems covered with treelike bark. They tend to blossom for a period of ten days in mid-May,  when a chill is still in the air, a full two weeks before their herbaceous peony counterparts.


The Peony Monument now harbors hundreds of well-established tree peonies of fifty different varieties, many rarely seen in the United States:  they include showy whites, all shades of pink and red, deep maroon, candy-striped and unusual butter-yellow flowers.  Friends of the Rockefeller State Park Preserve raised funds to build an adjacent garden and courtyard area where visitors can linger to admire the magnificent peonies.  Each May,  the spectacular Peony Monument attracts throngs of sightseers, gardeners, botanists and photographers.


It also attracts bees.  On a single May morning, garden visitors identified at least nine varieties of wild bees feeding on the tree peonies – among them red-belted and common eastern bumble bees; green metallic bees; ligated sweat bees; leafcutter bees; mason bees; small and large  carpenter bees; and large andrena mining bees.  The blossoms also lure honey bees in prodigious numbers. 


In mid-May, when the peonies blossom, native pollen sources for bees are much scarcer than in the summer months when wildflowers are in full bloom.  The Peony Monument thus has proven to be an unanticipated boon for the park’s spring pollinators.

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All Photos & text Copyright 2014-2015 Paula Sharp & Ross Eatman.  For use of photos, see  Permissions.
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