By Alyssa Abaloz
You may see them digging, trimming, mulching and planting, but the people who maintain the peony garden at Nichols Arboretum do much more than that.
Ahead of the garden’s centennial celebration, peony garden fellow Sarah Gizzi has been hard at work curating a user-friendly database of the peony bed maps for this year’s visitors.
Their first task in developing this database was compiling a comprehensive photo record for the garden. “[It included] some photos from the early 2000s, photos that I took in 2017, photos from Julia Rose in 2018, and a small collection of photos [former intern] Darby Stipe took in 2019,” Gizzi said.
“Using those and referencing our most current map from 2019, I went through and selected the most accurate photos for each peony. Some I had to cross reference with pictures from the American Peony Society–there are some peonies that look very similar to others. You have to look for those minute differences.” Gizzi added.
“I developed an organized filing system, and that is now being used to select photos for the new peony garden website. So, that’s the photo side of things…”
The interactive peony bed maps on our peony website. Each clickable bed icon embeds a map of the peonies in that bed, photos included.

The interactive peony bed maps on our peony website. Each clickable bed icon embeds a map of the peonies in that bed, photos included.

The current map Gizzi is referring to was created in their time as a Nature Academy intern in 2018. “We didn’t have any kind of interactive map or online map of the peony garden. We only had a PDF of the bed maps and an online database that was not user-friendly,” 
“I wanted to come up with a quick and easy way to see the location of specific peonies, background information, planting dates, etc. I wanted this information to be more available to the public, and creating a GIS map was the route we took.” Gizzi said.
A map of the peony garden on ArcGIS, created by Sarah Gizzi.

A map of the peony garden on ArcGIS, created by Sarah Gizzi.

A GIS, or geographic information system, is a type of database containing geographic data, combined with software tools for managing, analyzing, and visualizing those data.
Creating this elaborate map of peony data was no small task. First Gizzi had to outline each of the 27 peony beds. They then placed individual points for each peony in the garden, including the tree peonies, Itoh peonies, and the roses along the path to Schoolgirl’s Glen.
“A survey went out in 2020 that asked people what they wanted to learn more about in the peony garden. Some of those questions were ‘what are the oldest plants in the garden?’ and that inspired me to create a list of all the oldest plants in the garden. Since it’s the centennial, I wanted to find out if there were any 100-year-old plants left.” Gizzi answered, when asked if there were any interesting finds in their exploration of ancient peony records.
Graph depicting the range of years the Nichols Arboretum herbaceous peonies were introduced.
Graph of the distribution of the national origin of herbaceous peonies.

Graphs depicting the length of time peony cultivars have been in the garden, and where each cultivar originates from in the world.

“It was a long process. Tracking down the different maps we have, and then deciphering them. I had a lot of spreadsheet maps and one physical map from 1927. I basically went peony by peony and confirmed their locations in the maps chronologically. I ended up with this list of 46 peonies that are 100 years old and still in their original spots. There are 17 more that I would consider 100 years old, but have been moved around the garden over time.” Gizzi said.
“I also found lists of sources (peony suppliers). The ones we’ve gotten in the last 10 years have all been from the same suppliers.” 
“What is the reason you would move a peony? Is it just for aesthetics, or is there a horticultural reason?” asked interviewer Alyssa Abaloz.
“So the only reason we would move one now is to fit a theme. The beds along the north side are all themed beds – bed 11 is all Chinese peonies, bed 14 is all French peonies, and so on. In the past, most likely they would move peonies to make room for other higher priority cultivars or if a peony was in poor health.” Gizzi speculated.
Sarah Gizzi tending to the peony garden.

“I love working in this garden. These peonies, specifically, mean a lot to me. Working here really got me through undergrad–the peonies were always there for me.”

Gizzi graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in Ecology, Evolution & Biodiversity in 2020. They started as an intern at MBGNA in 2016 as the peony garden intern, maintaining that role for 3 years. After a 2 year hiatus, Gizzi returned as the peony garden fellow. They hope to stay on the path of collections management and garden design–ideally working with peonies.