I admit I liked it better when it was called Paeonia suffruticosa ‘Rock’s Variety’, just because it had a faint whiff of the intrepid explorer, pith helmets, long treks on camels, that sort of thing. Joseph Rock himself was quite a character, and there’s a website devoted to his life and exploits, somewhere.
As near as I can tell, the plant is native to areas of north-central China that have a climate similar to eastern Colorado’s, so that must account for the tree peony’s general state of happiness.
My mom gave me this plant over twenty years ago; it was this little tiny thing that cost her too much money, but considering how it’s done over the years, not a bad investment after all. My wife, whose favorite plant this was, used to erect this tent-like thing to protect it from the inevitable frosts that would spoil the flowers, usually opening about the tenth of May, but this year it’s early, and there’s no sign of frost. (Yet.)
It had a very bad winter a couple of years ago but has fully recovered.
In his Garden Flowers, the late Christopher Lloyd wrote of tree peonies “there are more inventive ways of gardening than with such as this.” The older I get, the more this resonates in me, and the less enamored I become of Big Green Things that take up space and only do something worthwhile for a week or so. Lilacs are like that; utterly uninteresting for fifty weeks of the year. So are forsythias, viburnums (excepting of course Viburnum farreri and a few others), lots of roses (watch me change my mind in a few weeks), and so on.
Nevertheless, when I gave away my small collection of tree peonies, I kept this one. It has a certain something about it. Maybe it’s because it reminds me of sitting in the swing in my grandparents’ back yard, leafing through old National Geographics, reading the articles Rock wrote about his explorations, and thinking about the care my wife took, rolling out the tarp and gently stretching it on poles stuck around the plant, ensuring a steady supply of flowers, year after year, until, one day, she was gone.