by Dorothy Conigliaro –
For many Westchester residents, a trip to the Rockefeller Preserve is a must during the month of May. They are there to behold, once again, the magnificent tree peonies that arrived from Japan as seedlings in December 2002. Now, 15 years later, they have grown into mature plants of dazzling beauty, their huge blooms ablaze with colors of every hue.
The story of these peonies began after 9/11, when the Preserve was notified of a gift given by the Japanese people in commemoration of that tragic day. A letter from representatives from Shimane Prefecture expressed the hope that “the enjoyment of these flowers might help to soothe the pain felt by the people of New York City.”
Unfortunately, the first attempt to send the seedlings ended in disappointment, when a dockworker’s strike on the West Coast delayed their shipment. When they finally arrived and the boxes opened, it was found that the tender young plants had not survived the delay. At the Preserve, the lawns and shrubbery had been made ready for their arrival, and the flowers were to be included in a master plan to beautify the park’s entrance.
Not to be deterred, the Japanese people once again prepared to replace the ill-fated first shipment, this time by air. A letter posted at the entrance to the preserve tells something about the tree peonies, known in the Far East as “the king of flowers.” It reads, “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.” A group of Japanese horticulturists and gardeners arrived along with the shipment of 500 seedlings, who began the planting in the not-quite-frozen ground that had been prepared for them. Unlike the herbaceous peonies common in the US, tree peonies have a woody stalk and grow to a height of three to four feet.
Susan Antenen, Preserve Manager, reports that the peonies have survived the winter well, and have grown into mature plants from three to four feet tall since they first arrived more than 15 years ago. The anticipated peak of the peony blooming season is during the first half of May, and meanwhile the land is being cleared and pruning is being done by a group of volunteers led by Keith Austin.
For those of you who have not visited the Rockefeller Preserve, a visit during early May would confirm the hopes that the Japanese people expressed – because these spectacular blooms really can bring “peace of mind.” The Preserve, at 125 Phelps Way, Pleasantville, is easily reached, with an entrance and exit along Route 117 just north of Tarrytown. The vehicle entry fee is $6 and while you’re there, you can take a walk along the many paths that lead from the entrance. It is truly a natural wonder, with its lakeside vistas, its imposing trees, and its wildlife. An Empire Pass, which entitles you to entrance to all New York State parks for the year, costs $60. For more information, call 914-631-1470.