As part of a multi-year, multi-faceted project, Matthaei-Nichols staff and a special panel of experts work to identify peonies from the Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden
Thursday, June 7, University of Michigan Matthaei Botanical Gardens - On this warm late-spring day, buckets of cut-peony bouquets in hues of pink, white, and red dazzled Greenhouse 3. A rosy peony aroma hung in the air.
Harvested in bud stage days earlier and kept cool until they could be forced to open, the cut peonies evoked a powerful memory of the now mostly faded peony garden itself.
The flowers awaited the collective wisdom of the Peony Advisory Council, a group of local, regional, and international peony experts, growers, horticulturists, business owners, and historians. The Council reconvened this June to continue its work on helping Matthaei-Nichols staff conduct the Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden Initiative, a multi-year renovation project.
Staff and the Council are aiming for a positive identification of all the plants in the peony garden. No easy task, since peony names, forms, colors, and other attributes have in some cases shifted over the years.
While many of the peonies in the garden are believed to be correctly identified, there are some plants of questionable identity and approximately forty mystery plants. Verifying the identities of these plants will provide Matthaei-Nichols and the Council with a complete and correct catalog of the collection. In turn, the project will transform the garden into an internationally recognized reference collection that will serve as a conservation model for other historic cultivar collections and a destination for peony lovers.
To make the ID possible, exhaustive records are consulted. Council member Reiner Jakubowski in particular has amassed thousands of carefully organized records over decades into an enormous database created from historic peony manuals, catalogs, growers’ descriptions, and more.
In Greenhouse 3, already grown too warm by mid-morning, Matthaei-Nichols staff removed tagged stems of peonies, some with names. Carmen Leskoviansky, a staff horticulturist who leads the Peony Garden Initiative, read from descriptions based on Jakubowski’s work.
The council members examined each flower, comparing it against the description. Notes were taken; intense discussion ensued. Then the stem of flowers moved down the line where a photo volunteer clicked several pictures of the peony, including identifying features such as petals, stamens, and the name tag itself.
With the Council’s help recently, several unknown cultivars have been identified, including the rare ‘Silvia Saunders.’ Along the way, Arb and Garden’s staff have learned a great deal about peony culture and disease.
Stay tuned as work on the largest collection of heirloom peonies in North America continues. For more information, visit the peony section on our website.