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The Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden History

William Upjohn

In 1922 the Regents of the University of Michigan appropriated $2,000 to establish the Peony Garden at the Nichols Arboretum. A critically-evaluated and large collection of herbaceous peonies was being offered by Dr. W. E. Upjohn, an alumnus of the University of Michigan (1875) and founder of the Upjohn Pharmaceutical Company in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Dr. Upjohn likely contributed peonies from his own extensive collection, as well as exceptional selections from nationally recognized experts. In 1928 the Regents acknowledged the resolution by the Directors of the American Peony Society that recognized the Peony Garden at the Nichols Arboretum. This acknowledgment underscored the significance of the gift and the intent to establish a major herbaceous and tree peony collection.

Dr. Upjohn was a passionate collector and evaluator of herbaceous peonies by the early 1900s as well as a nationally noted philanthropist. He was active in the American Peony Society, serving as Treasurer for a term beginning in 1923. His personal estate near Kalamazoo held over 600 cultivars across many acres of display beds. Dr. Upjohn enjoyed opening his private collection to the public - free of charge - during the bloom season.  He also kept meticulous track of his peonies and privately published Brook Lodge Gardens - PeoniesThis booklet, published after 1922, contains his articulate opinions of the virtues and diverse intriguing facts peony by peony.  His obituary is available from the on-line archives of the Kalamazoo Public Library.

Above right: portrait of Dr. W. E. Upjohn. He was deeply appreciative of the skill and judgement that past peony breeders had brought to developing the ornamental peonies he so clearly enjoyed. In his introduction to Brook Lodge Gardens - Peonies he concludes: "Now I say these two efforts [stable cultivar names and ranking] of the American Peony Society are a perfect justification for the society's existence. This is my plea that you join the society and get the benefit and enthusiasm which comes through contact with those who were lovers of the peony before you and I really knew them."  This spirit of appreciation remains fundamental to the Peony Garden today.

Aubrey Tealdi

The University's Peony Garden was to increase understanding, knowledge, and appreciation of peonies, and was planned to include both herbaceous and tree peonies. Only the herbaceous peonies were planted in a formal garden designed by the Arboretum's director Aubrey Tealdi. After several years of preparation, it opened to the public in 1927. Tealdi brought national attention to the new garden by publishing two articles in the American Peony Society Bulletin. In 1929 he presented the history of its establishment, and in 1931 he solicited contributions of important varieties to expand the collection. Standards were high. As can be seen in the accompanying historical photographs (click on each to enlarge), every plant was carefully staked and presumably de-budded (side buds removed) in order to produce a single, stunning peony flower on each stem.


Visiting the Peony Garden has become an annual spring pilgrimage for visitors from Michigan and beyond. Many visitors are stunned at the vast display. Some seek to find an organizing theme to each bed so they can better grasp the diversity. At present there is no simple organizing concept, so self-guided themed tours have been prepared for use on-site. In the current Rejuvenation Plan some of the beds are being reorganized for teaching purposes. In its initial role as a trial garden, flexibility in the plantings would have been an important consideration rather than committing space according to abstract 'themes'. In 1929 Tealdi indicated the garden was in part organized into early-, mid- and late-blooming beds. Perhaps this is why the garden has been claimed - especially in years gone by - to bloom progressively, with the western edge near the Washington Heights entrance peaking first. If so, it is not evident now or easily deduced from the original planting maps. Organizing all the beds for a bloom progression has not been important when reallocating spaces in the garden. Spaces become open due to plant loss and relocation or replacement by other peony varieties. Indeed, there is no obvious planting concept to the beds from the hisorical inventory maps. However, many of the original peony plants are still thriving exactly where they were planted in 1922 - 1927 when the Peony Garden was initiated.
An excerpt from the 1990 printed guide to the Peony Garden summarizes its history:
Located in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Nichols Arboretum of the University of Michigan is fortunate to possess a large garden of 789 peonies including about 230 cultivars.  The Peony Garden dates to 1922, when the W. E. Upjohn family donated the original plants.  Aubrey Tealdi, UofM Professor of Landscape Architecture and then Director of the Arboretum, laid out the plants in a formal arrangement of 27 beds, a design that has been maintained to the present.  At its opening to the public in 1927, the Garden contained 280 different cultivars, and over the next 5 years, another 38 were added.  Of these original 318 cultivars, 196 still remain, making the Arb a significant repository of old peony cultivars.  

In 2008 the Peony Garden Initiative was developed under the guidance of Robert Grese, Director and Professor of Landscape Architecture. This multi-year initiative is revitalizing the peony garden as an important, documented historical collection of international significance maintained within a historically significant design and landscape context.  In 2012 Grese presented the Rejuvenation Plan for Peony Garden and Laurel Ridge that guides the thematic reorganization of the herbaceous peony beds as well as the long-awaited tree peony collection, and the newer intersectional peonies.

Historical published information courtesy of the American Peony Society. Historical images of the Peony Garden and Professor Tealdi are from the Univesity of Michigan. We thank the staff of Brook Lodge Gardens (then a unit of Michigan State University) for donating copies of 'Brook Lodge Gardens - Peonies' to this project in 2009.