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Tree Peony Extraordinare – Guan Yin Mian

Guan Yin Mian Tree Peony

Guan Yin Mian is my favorite tree peony, a native Chinese plant.  Guan Yin is the bodhisattva of compassion, or in terms more familiar, the goddess of mercy. During our years in China I became familiar with Guan Yin who is much given to appearing in visions, giving women the babies they and long for,  and who laughs that  we can struggle so – as she helps us. She is often shown wearing a gown with a rice plant design. Because out of her compassion, she transformed the weedy rice plant into a food plant that would feed millions.

Tree peonies are not really trees. They have a shrubby woody structure, so unlike herbaceous peonies they do not die down to the ground in the fall. Like herbaceous peonies they are long lived plants, and a mature plant can carry nearly a hundred gorgeous blossoms.  In spite of their fragile appearance they are very hardy. A Heath winter is as nothing to them. They bloom here at the end of May and into June, but their bloom period is short. Also that is the time of year when there can be heavy spring rains beating down of the large blossoms which are fragile.

Nameless white tree peony

A tree peony should be planted where it will get at least 6 hours of sun. They will tolerate, and welcome some shade. The soil should have a pH between 6.5-7.5 and be  well drained. I cannot say I have ever tested my acid New England soil for any of my peonies, but I  routinely spread a few ashes, or a bit of lime.  If you are  going to plant two or more tree peonies together  allow four feet between. You want to allow room for years of growth and heavy bloom. Also, make sure you plant them deeply enough, with the roots two or three inches below the soil surface. Again, this is very different from herbaceous peonies which should have the root just below the soil surface.  After the first year, unless there is a serious drought, watering is not needed. Remove spent blossoms. In the spring I prune off any branches that have suffered winter damage, and spread compost around the peonies. You can use a low nitrogen fertilizer. Too much nitrogen will result in weak growth.

Tree peonies, all peonies, require very little maintenance and suffer very little from disease or pests. They are beautiful and graceful and I love them. The snow is not yet melted here, but the air is softer and the sun brighter. I am looking forward to Guan Yin and her tree peony sisters, the most spectacular of my early bloomers.

Guan Yin Mian Tree Peony

Ginkgo – The Ancient Maidenhair Tree

Ginkgo biloba – Maidenhair tree

While we were living in Beijing we became fascinated with the ginkgo tree, sometimes called the maidenhair tree. This is an ancient tree and fossilized leaves dating back 270 MILLION years have been found. They saw the rise and fall of the dinosaur. Today it grows in many temperate and sub-tropical areas of the world because it is so unusual and beautiful and because it is so adaptable. It even tolerates pollution and is used in cities as a street tree.

Ginkgo leaves are distinctive with a fan shape, veins radiating from the stem end and a kind of waxy feel to the leaf.  Their flexible stems allow them to flutter in the breeze, giving form to a summer zephyr. And of course, in the fall they turn a brilliant gold, and most of those leaves will drop all at once during an autumnal night. The leaf above has two lobes which account for its name Ginkgo biloba, but it can have no lobes, or three lobes.

When we planted our trees everyone said “but their fruit stinks.” So I have heard many times before.  Was I worried? No. First off I have never experienced this stink in New York City or Beijing. Second, I have been told that they will not produce this fruit until they are over 30 years old – and we are old enough not to worry about things that may not happen for another ten or twenty years. As our construction guy said when we told him we were putting of a portion of our project he asked, “How long you plan on livin’?”

Ginkgos are male and female. I don’t know what we have. Perhaps we only have males and will never have to worry about stinky fruit. I did hear recently that nurseries propagate only male trees for this very reason. A friend told me that male and female ginkgos have different shapes.  One is more upright, and they other is more horizontal, but she didn’t know which is which. If anyone can illuminate this theory I will be glad to hear it.  I have both upright and horizontal trees. No sign of stinky fruit.

Our trees are about 15 years old, ceremonially planted by grandsons when they were between one and three years old. It was a great day, and the trees a tangible reminder.

Beauty Heart Radish

Renee's Garden Watermelon Radish

One of the New Plants for 2011 profiled in the new issue of The American Gardener published by the American Horticultural Society is a Watermelon Radish from Renee’s Garden.  I am ashamed to say that when I first came across this beautiful vegetable in Beijing I insisted on calling it a turnip. Who ever heard of a radish as big as a baseball?  My Chinese colleagues insisted on calling it a radish, but in spite of the fact that their English was excellent I thought it was some sort of mis-translation.  I have been put straight.

I have bought seeds for this radish before, but not been very successful, probably because I have not kept it properly watered. All radishes need consistent moisture to size up well. Now that I have my Front Garden which is easily watered I plan to try again. It also should be planted in midsummer as it likes the cool weather. A good prospect for succession sowing.

Photographs do not really do this vegetable justice. The pink center is beautiful ringed  with white an almost translucent rim of tender green. In Beijing we often ate this as a fresh pickle and I hope I can recreate that recipe. It is beautiful and delicious.

When I have seen this radish at local farmer’s markets it is usually called Watermelon Radish, but I love the Chinese name Beauty Heart. I was glad that Renee gave both.  I wonder if there will be any for sale at the Winterfare farmer’s market in Northampton tomorrow morning. I’ll be looking.

Three Lilies

White Henryi lily

Last fall I planted six lilies in the herb bed right in front of the house. Three Henryi lilies which are gold, and three white Henryi lilies, all from Old House Gardens, one of my favorite bulb suppliers.  White Henryi was the first to blossom, dazzling white with its golden throat.

Mystery lily

Then this lily bloomed. I’ve got a bit of a prop to hold up the blossom so I could photograph it. It is neither the white or gold Henryi. A natural hybrid? Unlikely.  Probably just a mis-labelled bulb, so now I have three varieties of lily in this bed.

Henryi lily

Henry’s lily is beautiful with its recurved petals, but it has an extra layer of meaning for me because it is a Chinese wildflower. My husband Henry and I spent two separate years living and working in Beijing; we continue to learn about this important and complex culture.  Elizabeth Licata has Henry’s lily growing in her garden, and hers has reached the promised height of 6 feet.  I have hopes for next year.

A Valentine Radish

Beauty Heart Radish

It seemed only appropriate to serve Beauty Heart radish at our Valentine’s dinner.

We were introduced to the beautiful pinky red radishes when we were living in Beijing where it is very popular. Members of my Women of China work unit brought some pickled Xin  Li Mei radish to a picnic outing. They called it Beauty Heart which I much prefer to Red Meat, as it is sometimes  called in seed catalogs. It is also called Watermelon radish for its ‘large’ size, green skin and red interior.

I have not been successful in growing Beauty Heart radish. I think my growing season is too short and cool. My book, Oriental Vegetables: The Complete Guide for Garden and Kitchen by Joy Larkcom, says that it needs several months of warm weather, beginning when temperatures are reliably above 60 degrees. They are ready for harvest in about 80 days. She makes the point that growing them in an unheated hoop house provides ideal conditions. That explains why the Beauty Hearts I bought at Winterfare from  Red Fire Farm are so beautiful and delicious.  And why the ones I have tried to grow are such failures.

I originally thought these radishes were really turnips because of the size. I was wrong. I also thought the roses carved of vegetables on banquet tables were dyed turnips, but no, the petals are carved from Beauty Heart radishes, and as good to eat as they are a pretty decoration.

Calligraphy Lesson

Yesterday famed author and illustrator Ed Young made a presentation at the Childrens Literature Festival  for the young set at Buckland Shelburne Elementary School. He did everything the children asked, making a lion – and a chicken – according to their directions  while he stood behind the easel and making a horse paper cut.

He also had the children hold a long long scroll with a poem he had written some 20 years ago to demonstrate Chinese characters.  In China, as in other countries, there are many styles of handwriting and calligraphy. The style he used on this scroll is an early simple style that makes it easy to understand how the Chinese written language developed. See how the characters  for Mountains, Above and Clouds make sense.

The characters for Rain, Water and Rivers are poetic.

If there is rain there must be Sun to make crops grow in the Fields.

We all know that Rice is a Chinese staple, especially in the south of China.

Salt is a staple everywhere.

Young bamboo shoots are also a part of the Chinese diet, but the many many varieties of bamboo have countless other uses, besides being a symbol of the flexibility that is needed to meet the challenges of life. Bending without breaking.

I told Mr. Young that I had had occasions to point out to American children that they have an easier time than Chinese children learning to read and write.  Americans need only learn how to recognize and arrange 26 letters, but the Chinese need to learn 5000 characters to be literate.  He corrected me and said it wasn’t quite that bad – and after all – if I could learn 45 characters in the one lesson he had just given, it would not be long before I’d have memorized many characters.  He is right of course, but I still think American children have an easier time.

I could not show the whole poem with its 45 characters, but it was eventually made into a interestingly paged book, Beyond the Great Mountains, with  his own unique and prize winning illustrations.  He thought the book was out of print, but I ran home and checked and was able to order a copy for myself.

Thank you Susan Samoriski for arranging Mr. Young’s visit, thank you, Mr. Young for engaging our children, and thank you for letting me attend. I had a wonderful time.

Mr. Young’s books have won many awards over the years for his beautiful illustrations, and for the stories he has told.  You can see a full list of his books and awards on his website.

Three Friends of Winter

Since I have just posted about Spring Festival, the Chinese New Year, I thought I would continue with a mention of the Three Friends of Winter, the pine, bamboo and plum blossoms. These plants symbolize survival under adverse conditions.

The pine is considered the chief of trees. Its trunk is straight and powerful (although I have to say that the pine that shows up commonly in Chinese art is less than tall and straight) like an upright man of strength and virtue. At the same time a pine’s twisted limbs symbolize the ethical and principled man buffeted by the winds of adversity

Although the pine is revered for its strength, the nearly evergreen bamboo with its hollow stalk is symbolic of tolerance and open-mindedness – and flexibility. Sometimes survival of those with integrity depends on their ability to yield without breaking. Hence the stories of nobles who retire to their mountain hermitages to tend their chrysanthemums – at least until a change of climate at the imperial court . As an element in the Chinese garden the bamboo is welcomed for the rustling music it makes in the breezes of every season.

The plum is the first to bloom in very early spring. Though its blossoms are not large or particularly noticeable, its fragrance wafting on the cold air cannot be ignored. The fragile and exquisite blossom is a metaphor for inner beauty and humility in adversity. It can be hardy in Beijing in a protected location – which means it would also need protection here in Western Massachusetts.

In China we found that many plants were grown and used as much for their symbolism as for their beauty. For example, the chrysanthemum, a native of China is a symbol of the courage it takes to lead a life unconstrained by demands of convention, of gossip and palace intrigues. Hence those nobles leaving court for their hermitages and chrysanthemum gardens. But those are flowers and stories for another season.