Past & Future
Peony Garden First Century
See the ‘Lost Gardens’ of Public Peony Gardens in this web site
In the early 20th Century, several major American universities had peony gardens, both for beauty and study. The first was at Cornell University. 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 contributed peonies from his own extensive collection, and nationally recognized experts and nursery owners donated exceptional selections.
In 1928 the Regents acknowledged a resolution by the Directors of the American Peony Society, recognizing the potential significance of the Peony Garden at the Nichols Arboretum.
Dr. William E. Upjohn [wearing pince- nez glasses]
Upjohn family papers
Item Number: HS11805
Bentley Image Bank, Bentley Historical Library
Peony Garden at the University of Michigan
early 20th century
Dr. Upjohn was a passionate collector and evaluator of herbaceous peonies 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 at least 14 acres of peony 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 – Peonies. This booklet, published after 1922, contains his articulate opinions of the virtues and diverse intriguing facts peony by peony.
Dr. W. E. Upjohn was deeply appreciative of the skill and judgment 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.
Creating the Peony Garden
The University’s Peony Garden was to increase understanding, knowledge, and appreciation of peonies, and was planned to include both herbaceous and tree peonies. The formal garden of 27 beds was designed by the Arboretum’s director Aubrey Tealdi. These beds were only for herbaceous peonies – the tree peonies were to be on the slopes above the main peony beds.
Although the garden was initiated in 1922, it was not well-enough established to be open to the public until 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 historical photographs below, every plant was carefully staked and from the evidence, de-budded (side buds removed) in order to produce a single, stunning peony flower on each stem.
The Great Depression of the 1930s, followed by World War II put completing the peony garden out of anyone’s priority tasks. Those hundreds of peonies that had been planted and inventory mapped did what peonies do when they are happy – they bloomed and got larger. Over the years and decades, the peony garden became a pilgrimage site during bloom season, but it was not deeply incorporated into the institution’s management culture.
As far as we can tell, it was not until about 1987 that community members, led by the Ann Arbor Chapter of the Woman’s National Farm and Garden Association, with assistance from Brook Lodge, began to revitalize the peony garden. Their focus was preparing the Peony Garden for the Nichol’s Arboretum’s 90th Anniversary – as an example of the Arboretum’s collection serving educational roles.
Their Peony Garden Guide can be downloaded here (Note: some plant locations have changed since the booklet was published in 1996.
Rejuvenating the Peony Garden
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 historical 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.
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.
In 2022 the University of Michigan Board of Regents approved naming the garden the W.E. Upjohn Peony Garden, in recognition of collective gifts from members of the Upjohn family.
Historical published information courtesy of the American Peony Society. Historical images of the Peony Garden and Professor Tealdi are from the University 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.
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.