New book from UM Press celebrates the magnificent peony
There aren't that many plants that people uproot and take with them when they move, but peonies are one.
Peonies dating from the 1870s followed my family's progression from Detroit's Trumbull Avenue to East Ferry just north of the Detroit Institute of Arts, from there out to our Rochester Hills dairy farm in the early 1930s, and finally to my Ann Arbor garden today.
"So many people have inherited their grandmother’s peonies," said Robert Grese, director of UM's Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum, and co-editor along with Matthaei-Nichols Curator David Michener of the just-released "Passion for Peonies" ($24.95) from UM Press.
"It just becomes," Grese said, "one of those plants that people just pass along." Michener called peonies "Living heirlooms."
And after our chilly spring, peonies are about to burst into full blossom all around the metro area in the next week.
Where the peony got its name, however, is disputed, though one possibility is that it came from Mt. Olympus and ancient Greece.
"Paeon was a physician to the Greek gods," Grese said, whose teacher, for complicated reasons, wanted to kill him. "To save him, the gods turned into a plant. That was the first peony."
"Passion for Peonies" should delight the flowering shrub's many fans. Among its chapters you'll find an intriguing history by Grese of the celebeated Nichols Peony Garden, planted in 1922 and first opened to the public five years later.
Alas, like so much in American life these days, the Peony Garden, with 300 historic varieties, is closed this season, but hopes to reopen to the public in 2021.
There's also a chapter by Peggy Cornett, historic gardener and curator of plants at Monticello, that details how peonies entered America in the 1700 and 1800s.
"The earliest peonies were a couple native to Europe that came in by the early 1700s, including a red peony that didn’t have much of a fragrance," Grese said. "However, once the Asian peonies made it to Europe, French and English breeders had heydays breeding different varieties."
One chapter in "Passion for Peonies" examines the bewitching fragrances associated with the plant, while another looks at the flower's presence in fine art over the centuries, particularly in China, Japan and Korea.
In America, the peony first gained fame as "an elite plant in the 19th century for breeders," said co-editor Michener, "but because they’ll grow without any care, they also become favorite flowers for farmers. Plus," he added, "you don’t have to buy them. You can just get the roots from another grower."
By the 20th century, when the plant really took off in American backyards, some varietals nonetheless retained a distinctly aristocratic edge.
"What’s wild is that the 'Mrs. Harding' sold for $100 a root in the mid-1920s," Michener said. "But that same catalog list also had some that sold for 50cents."
Curious, he did a little digging to see what $100 could buy you circa 1925. "Basically," Michener said, "three roots would buy you an entry level Ford."
About half the the varieties ordinarily on display in the Nichols Peony Garden, he explains, are the only examples of their type known on earth, making the garden a reference collection of considerable import.
"The same peony may be in a cemetery outside Cadillac," Michener said, "but nobody knows it's there. This is what molecular fingerprinting," which will confirm a plant's specific genetic strain, "is going to be so useful for."