By Darby Stipe

The Nature Academy is focused on training a new generation of environmental leaders in sustainability, conservation, and ecological restoration. As part of the Nature Academy program, each intern writes a blog post and develops a project. The project provides an opportunity to take on responsibility in an area of interest, contribute to the goals of their team, and develop a skill or area of knowledge that can be added to the intern’s portfolio. The post may reflect the project or be a nature-related topic of personal interest to the intern.

Peonies have always been in my life. In my family, we’ve had one since 1956, passed down from my grandmother to my dad, moving from home to home and garden to garden with us. It’s been a simple and poignant reminder of my grandmother, as well as the beauty of renewal and growth in the spring. The garden in the arboretum reminds me of my family tradition every time I walk through the rows and rows of unique flowers. With over 350 herbaceous peony varieties, all predating 1950, the Arb hosts the largest public collection of historic peonies in North America. Michigan alumnus Dr. W.E Upjohn donated the core collection of peonies in 1922 from his own personal collection. The black and white photo here shows the peony garden circa 1920s, not long after the garden opened to the public. As we approach the 100th anniversary of the garden, some of the original peonies are still thriving and blooming today.

Pink and white peonies

As a rising senior at the University of Michigan, I study the environment— specifically, the interactions between human and environmental health.  This summer I am the academics and curation intern for Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum. I split my time between researching and creating interpretive materials and helping with the preparation of the peony book being written for the garden’s centennial in 2022. When I’m not working, I try to take advantage of the summer in Ann Arbor by going to festivals and enjoying the warm weather. 

Working in the Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden, I get to see firsthand the impact peonies have on other families. From toddlers to seniors, faces light up from the very first glimpse of the garden in bloom.

My main job in the peony garden is capturing visitor interactions with the flowers, whether that be photo shoots, selfies, or escaping into the beauty of the garden after a long day at work. With the University of Michigan hospital system right next door, a nearly endless stream of patients and staff alike visits the Arb and the peony garden to get lost in the spring colors and the greenery.


Student Jeffrey Wicks (left) creating his video on contrasts in the peony garden.


Selfie with peonies. Who wouldn’t want to be in the same photo with a peony blossom?

As you can imagine, the peony garden inspires a lot of creativity. In early June, for example, a University of Michigan art student requested special permission to film a video in the garden outside of the usual visitor hours of sunrise to sunset. His goal was to create a work that demonstrates the principle of contrast. He filmed twice, once close to midnight using bright spotlights to illuminate the flowers with the leading lady in a white dress. The next morning brought sun and a black dress, along with an interview of curator David Michener explaining the history of the garden and its uniqueness in size and variety.

Visitors are often more than happy to talk about the ways peonies have enjoyed a special place in their lives. From stories of families visiting the Arb every year to enjoy the blooms, to those who come to the gardens to try and match a variety of peony they have at home to a similar one at the peony garden, these special plants play a large role for many families each spring. They offer a common bond between families—even strangers—when they meet and talk about the beauty of the flowers in the peony garden. 

As a living museum, there is also research happening in the garden. One project seeks to determine which peonies have viruses and how those viruses might spread to other peonies. Some plants show no symptoms while others have weakened stems or stunted growth. The peony garden is an invaluable place to study and observe things both subtle, like plant genomics, and sensually overwhelming, as when the garden is in full bloom.


Matthaei-Nichols Curator David Michener leads a tour of the peony garden for members.

Bubbles-in-the-peony garden

The peony garden inspires a lot of creativity, like the A2Bubbles group that shows up every year to delight peony-goers with giant bubbles.

All of the rain and chilly weather in May this year stalled the blooms until nearly the second week of June. Though we had to wait a little longer than usual to see the garden in its splendor, it was certainly worth it! Many of the plants bloomed simultaneously, creating a show like no other. There’s never a shortage of kids running around to smell every peony they can. And from giant bubble makers to readers on the grassy incline on the southeast of the plant beds, every corner of the garden brims with activity.

Some of the other interns pointed out an unorthodox function of the peonies: a safe space for a nesting robin. From hatching to learning to fly, three little chicks were protected under the foliage of a peony even during the bustle of bed preparation. It’s no small wonder how the mother managed to sustain her chicks even with all the staking, mulching, weeding, and wandering around being done by interns, volunteers, and visitors alike.


Visitors admiring the peony garden in full bloom.


Baby robins in their nest under a canopy of peony shoots.

My experience as an intern so far has taught me how to be approachable and explain nature to our visitors in an easy-to-understand way. Taking pictures of people while they are enjoying the garden is a bit awkward, so I’ve found it’s important to be open and friendly while explaining exactly what I’m there to do. 

One common misconception that many visitors have is that ants are required to pollinate the peonies or that the flowers require ants to bloom. This is a great opportunity for a clarifying sign somewhere around the peony beds to promote the real reason ants are all over the peonies. The buds produce a sweet nectar for the ants, while the ants provide a bit of a protection detail, scaring off or eating other herbivores and insects.


Ants love to collect the sap secreted by the peony bud. It’s a common misconception that ants are required to pollinate the peonies or that the flowers require ants to bloom.


For nearly all aspects of my job, it has been important to be able to condense information and present it in a way that people can both easily understand and care about. This internship has been, and will continue to be, an invaluable source of knowledge about what it takes to run a living museum, not just limited to the peony garden, but the Arb and the botanical gardens as well. I would encourage everyone to visit, whether it’s to take a relaxing stroll through some of the most well-kept public greenery in Ann Arbor or have a family picnic in one of the many natural areas and diverse ecosystems.

Darby Stipe, from Tipton Mich., will be a senior at University of Michigan fall 2019. She’s majoring in Program in the Environment with a focus on environmental and human health. Darby also enjoys reading and photography.