Histories of the Herbaceous Peonies

The Early History of Peony Growing

Paeonia officinalis probably secured the name for the genus. It was named by the ancients in honor of Paeon, who was said to have cured the wounds received by the god Mars during the Trojan War. Ancient writers stated that Paeon was a pupil of the great Aesculapius; that he received the peony on Mount Olympus from the hands of the mother of Apollo; and that with it he had cured Pluto of a wound he had received from Hercules. This cure caused Aesculapius to become so jealous that he arranged to have Paeon killed. Pluto, retaining a grateful sense, however, changed him into the flower which forever after bore his name.

Old herbalists thought the roots were remedies for many disorders, all the way from headaches to nightmares and obstructions of the liver. The ancient Greeks, when digging the plant, were said to be careful to do it at night because in the daytime a woodpecker, which the gods had assigned to the plant, would dart at the eyes of the intruder. In England the peony was planted to keep away evil spirits.

Paeonia officinalis is native in many parts of Europe. A double red and a white were described as early as 1636. The plant was so beautiful and hardy and immune to neglect that it soon came to be known as the poor man's flower which later caused it to be termed "vulgar" by the rich. The wealthy classes in the seventeenth century tried to ostracize it. They wanted rare plants, not for their own sake, but for the wealth that these plants would indicate.

Both white and red varieties of Paeonia albiflora were known in China as early as 536, and by 1596 at least thirty improved varieties are said to have been listed in nurserymen's catalogs in China. The species is native over a great range of territory from northern Siberia down through China. Some of the Chinese garden forms were brought to England as early as 1805.

The popularity of the peony really began in France. As early as 1825 one or two growers were growing seedlings of Paeonia officinalis, and in the 1850's Charles Verdier of Paris was offering over fifty named varieties. By 1835, Modeste Guerin was naming varieties of Chinese peonies. Among the other early growers were M. Calot of Douai, who was active until 1872 and whose collection then passed into the hands of M. Crousse of Nancy, who sent out seedlings until about 1890. The variety Festiva Maxima was produced very early in the century. Its exact origin is in doubt. It is sometimes attributed to a Belgian amateur.

Peony varieties do not come and go as fast as those of annuals and of some other perennials, so that the names are more stable. The names of members of such French families as Calot, Crousse, Dessert, Lemoine, Lemon, Mechin, Miellez, Millet and Verdier come down to us in countless variations of Monsieur, Madame, and, Mademoiselle. It is said that no less than forty-four members of the Verdier family had had their names placed on peonies.

The work of producing new varieties was not begun in England as early as in France. In fact, it was not until about 1850 that John Salter began to plant the varieties of albiflora that earlier Englishmen had brought from China. Kelway followed him about 1863 and did most important work until the turn of the century or a little later. In 1884 he was offering 250 named varieties in his catalog, about a hundred of which were of his own raising. For many years he was the most successful of the English breeders, competing with growers on the continent.

America—19th Century

As early as 1806 Bernard McMahon listed five kinds of peonies in his list of perennials. William Prince, the pioneer nurseryman of Flushing, Long Island, New York, in 1828 states that he has made every effort to obtain all possible kinds from Europe and from China. He describes at length Whitleyi, Humei, and Fragrans, which had been raised in England from plants brought from China.

In 1856 H. A. Terry of Crescent, Iowa, obtained about thirty varieties of peonies from Prince. These included Humei, Pottsi, Fragrans, Festiva Maxima, Edulis Superba, etc. Mr. Terry saved seeds from these and had thousands of seedlings, many of which he later named.

(34-35) John Richardson of Dorchester, Massachusetts, had peonies as early as 1857 and grew seedlings for thirty years. Some of these were later described and distributed by Professor Robert T. Jackson of Cambridge.

In 1880 Mrs. Sarah A. Pleas of Indiana grew seedlings and sold them to various nurserymen who named them and introduced them. The Reverend C. S. Harrison of York, Nebraska, about the same time began to popularize the peony in the West. Other prominent early growers were C. M. Hovey of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and George Ellwanger of Rochester, New York.

In the last decade of the century great numbers of named varieties of Chinese peonies were brought to this country by nurserymen.

As propagation by the division of roots was rather slow, many persons sowed seeds, giving rise to additional forms. By the end of the century the number of varieties developed in this country from seed, or imported from abroad, had become so large as to cause great confusion. This confusion in names acted as a serious hindrance to the trade. Unscrupulous growers took advantage of the situation to rename old varieties and to market hundreds of worthless seedlings.