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.
Curator David Michener has been with MBGNA since 1990. His work with the peony garden has taken the shape of engagement, curation, stewardship and research over the past few decades.
David Michener leading a tour through the peony garden in 2019. Photo: Scott Soderberg.
“When I moved to Ann Arbor, I’d visit the peony garden in the spring. This was at a time when Nichols Arboretum was a separate institution from Matthaei Botanical Gardens.” Michener recalled when asked about his first interactions with the garden.
The two institutions merged right around the time the peony garden restoration project began in the year 2000.
“There had been an earlier effort in the late 1980s to stabilize the garden in partnership with what is now the Ann Arbor Farm and Garden group. This was a time when we were figuring out what the peony garden should be, and that led to the establishment of it as a historic collection.” Michener continued.
Historic, Michener and his team decided, meant the cultivar was established in the year 1950 or earlier. The team then went on to make the decision of which peonies would be kept, and which would not.
From there, decisions were made on which historic varieties needed to be procured. Seven of the new additions were procured from the estate of Dr. W. E. Upjohn, an alumnus of the University of Michigan (1875) and founder of the Upjohn Pharmaceutical Company in Kalamazoo, Michigan and the peony garden at Nichols Arboretum.
“There were still some empty spots, so we decided to rearrange and fill the garden with themes in mind. We considered breeders, gender roles, Upjohn’s aesthetic, and also going beyond French peonies and introducing cultivars from other parts of the world.” said Michener.
At the time of the garden’s inception, the regents at the University of Michigan didn’t make it clear what the purpose of this garden would be. Now, Michener is working to redefine the garden as a support mechanism for academia.
“This is being reconfigured as a research collection, with interest in genomics and social representation in American garden and landscaping history. We want a collection that is inquiry driven.” Michener explained. “We’re working to build a network of peony gardens across North America and the world, so current decisions we’re making support the history of peonies as well as the research questions we’re asking, rather than making a good display.”
“One of the things that’s really important is our relationship with the Central Botanical Gardens in Minsk of the National Academy of Sciences in Belarus as our sister garden.” Michener said. “They have been such an engine in helping us rethink the collection as a research tool, in addition to being a public pilgrimage place. With the war going on in Ukraine and the tensions in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, it’s important to remember there are peaceful ways of societies engaging, and communal research is one of them.”
After over twenty years of work with the peony garden, what might Michener hope to see in the future?
“Engaging students and faculty with different forms of research.” Michener answered. “Genomic work will continue further, viruses and issues of plant epidemics and virology, gender studies about the skewed presentation of women in the sciences and plant breeding–the idea is that there’s hardly a part of culture that doesn’t interact with peonies, once you start burrowing down.”
And what is the favorite peony of Michener, author of the 2020 Passion for Peonies book?
“As I tell the volunteers, I choose my favorite peony of the hour during bloom season.” Michener laughed.
“But I have two that I want to talk about–one of the Upjohn era and one of the era of the founding of the garden. From the founding of the garden we have Silvia Saunders. We have one of the few plants that exist. It’s bred by the most famous peony breeder of the early 20th century, Saunders, a Canadian who was working in upstate New York at the time. Named for his daughter, the idea is that all the flowers on the stem would bloom at once, and it does! It is stunningly beautiful, and yet, it was known as a commercial bomb.”
“One that Upjohn knew well is Minnie Shaylor.” Michener continued. “It’s as close to perfect as a full peony comes, except for the fact that there is no fragrance–I like fragrant peonies.”