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Historic Peonies at the Arb

The Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden is the largest public collection of historic (pre-1950) herbaceous peony cultivars in North America. We are rebuilding this historic garden to be an internationally significant living reference collection. In the next few years you'll see changes to the garden and adjacent areas as we rejuvenate it to tell the story of peonies - in nature and as perceived by diverse cultures. We're accomplishing this in the conceptual framework initiated in the 1920s when both herbaceous and tree peony collections were planned. We will retain the historic design of the main beds but reorganize certain beds with themes. Classic tree peonies from Asian cultures as well as modern American and European selections will be grouped on the nearby slopes of Laurel Ridge. Wild species - many at risk in their native habitats - will give us the complete range to tell the the story of peonies. Click here for the rejuvenation plan.

Above: The plant-by-plant quality review of the peony collection, conducted by American and Canadian experts, began in 2009.


Peonies have been bred all over the world where there are cool-winter climates. There are two species native to North America, though they are not showy and make poor garden plants. The species that are parents of the modern garden peonies are native to Asia and Europe which were also the first hubs of peony breeding. Later, this interest developed in the United States and Canada. To see the distribution of the national origin of varieties present within the peony garden click here.
The Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden is home to historic cultivars of peonies that were introduced into gardens throughout the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century. Interest in peony breeding took off during this time, followed by a boom in the number of peonies introduced into the market. After World War II, the passion for peonies declined, reemerging again in the 1980s. To see the range of years that the Nichols Arboretum peonies were introduced click here.

Peonies by breeder

Peony breeders are always trying to improve the peony by cross-pollinating one peony with another. This results in sturdier plants and different colors, forms, and foliage characteristics. Breeders also try to extend the bloom season by selecting for plants that bloom earlier or later than current cultivars. The peony garden represents 46 peony breeders. 
Click here to see how many cultivars in this garden each of these 46 breeders introduced.

Bloom Information

Herbaceous peonies bloom at varying times throughout late spring and early summer. The earliest begin blooming in mid-May. The bloom is usually finished by the Summer Solstice, however on a particularly cool year blooms may continue into early July.
Click here to see the distribution of bloom time within the Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden.
Traditionally, herbaceous peonies come in four colors: white, blush, pink, and red. Through modern breeding, a greater range of colors has been achieved including coral, yellow, and patterned peonies. However, due to the historical nature of the peony garden, the peonies in this collection are within the narrower, traditional color range. To see the color distribution of the peonies click here.
The form of a peony refers to the characteristics of the peony flower.
Click the image on the left to see the different parts of the peony flower.

Peony forms:

Click any image for a larger view

Single: Similar to the wild form of the peony with five or more guard petals arranged around the carpels and pollen-bearing stamens of the flower.
Japanese: Five or more guard petals arranged around the carpels and stamens. Stamens are transformed into stamenoids which are similar to stamens in form and color but have a lumpy texture and thicker tissue that prevents them from shedding pollen.
Anemone: The stamens of this flower are transformed into petaloids - small, narrow petals in the center of the flower, surrounded by the outer guard petals. This form resembles a ball held in a cup or on a saucer.
Semi-double: Five or more outer guard petals with a center of smaller inner petals often decreasing in size as they near the center of the flower. Pollen-bearing stamens may be intermixed with petals or be present in the center of the flower.
Bomb: The stamens of this flower are transformed into inner petals. These petals are narrower than the guard petals but longer, resulting in a ball-like silhouette resting on the guard petals.
Double: Five or more outer guard petals with a center of stamens and carpels more or less transformed into petals creating the full body of the flower. Some stamens may be interspersed throughout the flower.
To see the distribution of forms within the Peony Garden click here.

Heirloom Annuals

An heirloom plant is an open-pollinated cultivated variety (cultivar) that has been grown for many years and is often handed down through families. (Open-pollinated plants are pollinated by birds, insects, wind, and other natural mechanisms.) The commonly accepted cut off date for heirloom plants is 1951, just after World War II, when seed companies and growers began widespread use of complex, artifically-produced hybrid seed. The offspring of open-pollinated cultivars retain the parent plant’s traits even when the flower is pollinated naturally. There are many motivations to grow heirloom plants including maintaining genetic diversity, reintroducing formerly well-known varieties, growing rare plants, expanding beyond modern hybrid varieties, and historic interest.

As we rearrange the peony garden we're filling some of its empty spaces with heirloom annuals to increase visual interest and add summer color after the peonies have finished blooming. All of the heirloom varieties have been grown in flower gardens since the 1800s. Modern cultivars of these plants have been bred for fashionable characteristics in flower color, form, and height. While modern cultivars are more common in flower gardens today, the historic cultivars were chosen because they reflect the era of the peony cultivars in the peony garden. Indeed, similar heirloom annuals and peonies may have grown together in flower gardens by generations past. 

The annuals in the Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden were chosen specifically for their resistance to drought, deer, and groundhogs, which find most of these plants to be unpalatable or irritating to the mouth.

Heirloom Annuals in the Garden

Centaurea cyanus – Bachelor’s Button
Cleome hassleriana – Spider Flower
Portulaca grandiflora – Moss Rose
Salvia coccinea – Scarlet Salvia