By Julia Lawson

Each intern in the Nature Academy internship program at Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum chooses a summer project to research and report on. The project culminates in a poster displayed in Matthaei’s public indoor spaces. Interns also write a blog post about their project concept or the research they’ve conducted.


Nearly every peony garden visitor takes out a camera or smartphone to photograph the vast array of beauty and colors that abound. (Photo © Michele Yanga.)


Tree peonies (pictured, foreground) often bloom a week or more before herbaceous peonies, extending the season on the front end. Here, the herbaceous peony plants (background in photo) are not yet in bloom. (Photo © Michele Yanga.)

For about a month every summer something magical happens in Ann Arbor: the Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden blooms! Hundreds of blossoms in red, white, pink, and various shades in between begin to fill 27 unique peony beds. This garden is the largest collection of heirloom herbaceous peonies in North America, with 270 historic varieties on hundreds of peony plants—nearly 800 when filled to capacity—that produce up to 10,000 flowers at peak bloom! In other beds surrounding the herbaceous peonies, tree peonies begin to bloom, often several weeks earlier than the historic varieties. Tree peonies have woody stems and come in colors such as purple and yellow that are not usually seen in herbaceous peonies. Their earlier bloom can extend the peony season on the front end by two weeks or so, making the entire peony season last for a month or more.

One of my main responsibilities this summer was to photograph each peony variety in the garden. As I went out every day with my camera and clipboard in hand, I had more people than I could count tell me that I had the best job in the world—and I couldn’t agree more! Getting to photograph this collection was the highlight of my summer, and knowing these photos will be of great use for the Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden makes me even more excited for its bright future.


My photos are a part of numerous projects here. My first use of these photos was to create individual bed maps for all of the 27 beds in the garden. Bed maps show a grid layout of each peony bed so visitors can look at a photo of a peony of their choice and easily be shown its official name. Like a sign or label in a museum, it provides information and clarity to inquisitive visitors.

Peony The Fawn

Paeonia ‘The Fawn’. Photo Julia Lawson.

Peony Bowl of Beauty

Paeonia ‘Bowl of Beauty’. Photo Julia Lawson.

Peony Crusader

Paeonia ‘Crusader’. Photo Julia Lawson.

My photos are also being used for a virtual online map of the peony garden, created by me and fellow intern Sarah Gizzi. Using the ArcGIS program, we created a map of the peony garden like the one pictured here. This map lets anyone view information about the garden from their own mobile device. With GPS technology, the map can locate viewers and show them nearby peonies in real time. Viewers can click on an individual peony, and will then be given data on that specific peony’s cultivar, bed location, breeder, flower form, country of origin, and year planted, along with one of my photos.

Peony garden bed #10
ArcGIS map of peony garden


Today, the digitization of collections is becoming more and more prominent and vital to spaces such as museums and gardens like ours. By creating this map, we allow guests to interact with the garden in new and exciting ways. This not only gives visitors access to information they would not otherwise have available, but also lets viewers save high resolution professional photos of their favorite peonies to their mobile device. This map is getting its finishing touches, and we hope to continue this project into the fall and the years to come. (Right: This is an example of one of the 27 bed maps I created using my photos. This map will be placed in front of each peony bed for the upcoming 2019 peony season.)

Another use for my hundreds of peony photos is for Matthaei-Nichols’ social media and website. As a separate task I completed this summer, I created a project plan to use my photos to facilitate documentable social engagement between visitors and social media platforms. Instagram will likely be the favorite because of its photocentric application. By posting photos from the peony garden and updating the garden’s Instagram account with its live story feature, we can introduce the garden to a new population of people: students, faculty, researchers, tourists, and peony lovers and growers worldwide.

This will allow visitors to interact with the collection in new ways. Some example posts include daily updates on bloom status in real time and interactive initiatives such as creating content using hashtags. Hashtags on photos provide an easy way to view a group of our followers’ photos at one time, while also being great for documentation purposes, story sharing, and increasing the enjoyment and participation with our visitors.

Peony Bo Peep

Paeonia ‘Bo Peep’. Photo Julia Lawson.

Social media use is also a great way to enlighten viewers with fun stories and facts, coming right from curators like Matthaei-Nichols Associate Curator David Michener or interns like me. This is a great way to bridge the gap between our visitors and some of the extremely knowledgeable people that work here. Each time I walked through the peony garden this summer with David I would learn something new. Some of the facts he has about peonies would make great captions for photo postings on Instagram or any of the Matthaei-Nichols social media accounts. For example, a caption for a close-up peony photo with visibly soft petals could read the following:

“David Michener, head curator of the exhibit, welcomes you to get up close and personal with the peonies! Compare the softness of their petals, note that some are smoother than others. Interestingly enough, this is a feature breeders cultivated! Women often held  peonies to their chest for events such as weddings and gatherings, and peonies with smooth delicate petals were preferred as they would not irritate the skin.”  (Paeonia ‘Edulis Superba’. Photo Julia Lawson.)
Peony Edulis Superba

Julia Rose Lawson was the informatics Intern at Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum, working closely with Associate Curator David Michener and in the Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden. At the University of Michigan she is pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Information, with focuses on user experience, social media, and design. She has minors in both museum studies and art history. The Peony Garden is an iconic legacy of Dr. W. E. Upjohn, founder of the Upjohn Pharmaceutical Company in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His generous gift of peonies in 1922 was the founding event in the multi-year project that culminated in the Peony Garden opening to the public in 1927. Julia’s internship was made possible by gifts from members of Dr. W. E. Upjohn’s family to maintain the University of Michigan Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden and to make relevant information available to peony lovers and growers around the world.

Julia Lawson