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Tuesday September 17, 2019
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Matthai peony gardens

History in Bloom

"I think the magic of peonies relates to their past," Bob Grese says.

by Cynthia Furlong Reynolds

From the June, 2019 issue

"Throughout their history, these plants were cherished and passed down through generations," explains Grese. A professor in the U-M School for Environment and Sustainability, he also oversees Nichols Arboretum and Matthaei Botanical Gardens. "Immigrants brought them from their homelands across the seas. Pioneer women packed up roots and planted them where they settled, as reminders of their homes and families."

"In fact, the American Midwest has served as a greenhouse for developing modern peonies since the 1850s," adds curator David Michener, who's coauthored a book on them. Joe Mooney, who handles marketing and development for the Arb and Matthaei, mentions that the flowers "have an amazing variety of colors and scents. Some have a rose-like aroma, some have a lemony scent, and others a less delicious spicy smell." (Michener says the less delicious varieties were developed as medicinal plants in Spain, France, Italy, and Greece.)

The trio are currently planning a celebration for the Arb's famed peony garden, which turns 100 in 2022. Among their plans is a book focusing on the flowers' cultural history. Michener notes that the garden is a favorite backdrop for photos commemorating family reunions, weddings, christenings, new babies, and graduations. Though graduation takes place a month or more before the earliest blooms appear, he says, some grads return in their robes at the end of May to pose.

The garden's roots go back to 1922, when W.E. Upjohn, an 1885 alum and founder of the Upjohn Pharmaceutical Company in Kalamazoo donated his personal collection. The garden officially opened in 1927, with 280 cultivars. Nowadays, it has more than 800 plants representing 363 historic cultivars--196 of them from the Upjohn bequest.

Grese says the garden is recognized internationally for its "historically significant design and landscape context." Since 2008, he's been engaged in a comprehensive project to revitalize and document it. While existing species were being verified, he assembled a committee of twelve experts to create plans for reorganizing the beds and adding new international species,

...continued below...

including tree peonies from China and Japan. More acquisitions are on their way to Ann Arbor.

"Here in the United States, only one or two peony gardens survive from the early twentieth century," Michener says. "We're one of them. Another is at Swarthmore College. Our peony garden is a lens of cultural activities. It illustrates how cultures have interacted as they imported and shared varieties."

This month, the garden will interact with thousands of visitors when the peonies come into bloom. The exact date depends on Mother Nature.

"Somewhere around May 22 the first bloom appears," Michener says. "We always have people calling and demanding to know exactly when the garden will be in full bloom. Between May 29 and June 6 is a safe bet. Peonies are remarkably consistent. No matter how hard the winter, they manage to catch up."

For the garden's centennial, the horticulturalists and the U-M Press are planting the seeds for a book project. They are inviting anyone with testimonials, amusing stories, family lore, and/or photos of the peony garden to share them by email

( or mail (1800 N. Dixboro Rd., Ann Arbor, 48105).

"We want to celebrate the joy of peonies in bloom," Michener says.     (end of article)

[Originally published in June, 2019.]


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