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.

Photo Gallery

A view of the eastern part of the Rockefeller Park Preserve Peony Monument.

The flowers of the Peony Monument garden turn toward its sunlit central path, orienting their blossoms to face visitors. Tree peonies are heliotropic -- they rotate their stems so that their flowers point toward the sun and sunny areas. Heliotropism attracts spring pollinators, by luring them to warm environments where they can raise their body temperatures while foraging on chilly spring days.

Tree peonies are showy flowers that often have many layers of petals circling prominent and multicolored centers - this white blossom from the Peony Monument has a purple ovary, pink pistils and bright yellow stamens. Its stamens, long, gaudy, numerous and covered with pollen, are highly alluring to bees.

A Large Andrena Mining Bee gathers pollen inside a Shimane Hakugan tree peony.

A European Honey Bee weighted with yellow pollen clings to the stamen of a white peony.

After gathering a large saddlebag of pollen from an overhanging blossom, a European Honey Bee rests on a tree peony leaf. Tree peonies are a magnet to honey bees, which, unlike many wild bees, survive winter. Worker honey bees emerge in early spring and forage throughout the Peony Monument garden in order to replenish their hives' depleted stores of pollen and nectar.

This pink peony, in full bloom, has multilayered petals crinkled like taffeta, a bright green ovary, a flamboyant ring of golden stamens, and a delicate scent that attracts pollinators. The Peony Monument garden contains fourteen varieties of pink peony.

An intimate view of the micro-landscape inhabited by an Andrena Mining Bee reveals yet another dimension of the tree peony’s beauty.

A Common Eastern Bumblebee queen drowses on a pink peony. Most bumblebees live a single year, from spring to fall – only the bumblebee queen overwinters. Each spring, the queen emerges from underground and builds a new nest, which she provisions with pollen and nectar before laying eggs to found a new colony. In mid-May, when temperatures still can run cold, solitary queen bumblebees can be seen traveling among the blossoms of the Peony Monument.

A Flower Fly (Volucella bombylans var. plumata ) sips nectar within the intensely-colored landscape of a pink peony. Flower flies, also known as hoverflies or syrphid flies, are bee imitators. They mimic bees for protection from birds who fear being stung – but flower flies cannot sting and are harmless. With its yellow-and-black stripes and furry ruff, this variety of flower fly is a convincing imitator of a bumblebee.

A honey bee collects pollen from a pink tree peony to bring back to the hive.

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