The Early History of the American Peony Society

By the turn of the century, the number of both commercial and amateur growers had greatly increased and the confusion as to variety names had grown worse and worse. In June 1902, Charles Willis Ward, president of Cottage Gardens Nursery, Queens, Long Island, New York, sent out a letter to growers of peonies calling attention to "the unsatisfactory condition of the nomenclature of the peony." He suggested the formation of an association to straighten out the nomenclature and to advance the public interest in the peony. In response to this appeal, twenty-four persons, including amateurs as well as nurserymen, signified their willingness to cooperate in forming a society. A preliminary meeting was held in Brooklyn in February 1903, and the first annual meeting took place in June in Detroit. Mr. Ward was elected president and Arthur H. Fewkes of Newton, Massachusetts, was named secretary.

With the formation o£ the American Peony Society the history of peony growing becomes practically synonymous with the history of the Society. The two therefore will be treated together. The names of many famous horticultural firms are to be found in the membership list of the first two years. They include seedsmen, such as Henry A. Dreer; florists, such as Philip Breitmeyer; and nurseries and nurserymen, such as Andorra, Arthur Bryant and Son, John Charlton and Sons, J. Wilkinson Elliot, Ellwanger and Barry, Jules Heurlin, Jackson and Perkins, Klehm's, J. Woodward Manning, Thomas Meehan and Sons, William A. Peterson, W. T. Smith, Storrs and Harrison, T. C. Thurlow, and Gilbert Wild.

There were also individuals already famous, or later to become famous, as peony growers. Among these were Carl Betscher, C. S. Harrison, George Hollis, Robert T. Jackson, J. F. Rosenfield, and E. J. Shaylor.

In the effort to compile peony records, President Ward induced Auguste Dessert, the famous French peony specialist, to compile a descriptive list of 549 authentic French and Belgian peony varieties introduced between 1865 and 1902. To this list Mr. Fewkes added nearly 300 varieties of Kelway in England, and of Ellwanger and Barry, George Hollis, Mrs. Sarah A. Pleas, John Richardson, and H. A. Terry in this country, thus covering all varieties introduced between 1844 and 1904.

At the New York meeting in 1904 the Society agreed to enter into cooperation with the Horticultural Department of the Experiment Station at Cornell University for the purpose of making a test garden for the study of varieties. The study was to extend over a sufficient number of years to enable the investigators: 1. to bring order out of the confusion and to establish correct names by applying rules of nomenclature, and to furnish accurate descriptions of all authentic varieties; 2. to ascertain the botanical status of all varieties; and, 3. to determine the commercial values of the different varieties, particularly their vigor, health, floriferous qualities, and colors.

The Experiment Station was to provide the land, the labor of planting, and all subsequent care. All notes were to be taken by the Station according to the scheme arranged by the committee appointed by the Society. The plants were to be furnished free of cost by the Society and its members. Three plants of each variety would constitute a test. At the close of the test, the Experiment Station was to be entitled to a complete set of two plants each of all distinct varieties, and each contributor would be entitled to as many plants as he originally contributed, providing they were available after the Experiment Station set had been made up. The remaining plants were to become the property of the American Peony Society. The results of the study were to be published in bulletin form by the Experiment Station and all members of the Society were to be entitled to a copy of each publication.

The first plants were received at Cornell in the autumn of 1904. The plants were set three feet apart in rows four leet apart and 1933 varieties were received the first year. The most important European donors were August Dessert, Chenonceaux, France, 230 varieties; Goos and Koenemann, Niederwalluf, Germany, 200; and L. Paillet, Chatenay, France, 169. Smaller numbers came from Croux, Chatenay, France; from van Leeuwen, Sassenheim, Holland; and from Peter Barr and James Veitch, London. The most important American contributors were Cottage Gardens, 376 varieties; John Charlton, Rochester, 149; Bertrand H. Fair, Wyomissing, Penna,, 147; Ellwanger & Barry, Rochester, 135; Peterson Nursery, Chicago, 125; and J. F. Rosenfield, West Point, Nebraska, 113. Smaller numbers of varieties were received from Andorra Nursery, Storrs & Harrison, Thurlow's Nursery, Jackson & Perkins, George Hollis, Dr. C. S. Minot, and half a dozen others.

The first objective of the test garden, to bring order out of the confusion in nomenclature, took a number of years. It was first under the direction of Professor John Craig of Cornell and then under his assistants, J. Eliot Coit and Leon D. Batchelor. Mr. Farr agreed to carry the main burden of the work for the Society, assisted by Joseph Dauphin of Cottage Gardens Nursery. They worked not only at Ithaca but at Wyomissing and Queens.

The great need for a survey of nomenclature was soon dramatically proven. Prominent examples were Edulis Superba, which was sent to Cornell under twenty-three different names; and Dr. Bretonneau which came under fourteen different names. Almost all widely grown varieties appeared under more than one name.

In 1907 Coit published A Peony Check List of all peony names that had appeared in horticultural literature, magazines or catalogs or on labels of plants sent to Cornell. This was the beginning of the great check lists of the Society, published in the 1928 Manual and now kept up to date in card form at Kingwood Center, Mansfield, Ohio.

Later Cornell publications were Bulletins No. 259 by Coit in 1908; No. 278 by Batchelor in 1910; and No. 306 in 1911 by Batchelor. This completed the work. In 1912 the test garden was broken up and the plants disseminated.

(36-37) An interesting incident that has, we hope, never been duplicated was reported by Coit. He found in one catalog ninety-seven peony names that did not occur in any other literature. He asked the firm for an explanation. "Certainly," they replied, "we bought a job lot of roots without names and supplied the names that they might sell better." Whatever troubles horticulturists may have these days, examples like that one no longer occur.

Mr. Ward served as president from 1909 to 1917 and was succeeded by Bertrand H. Farr, at that time one of the largest growers of the finest varieties of peonies, iris, and other perennials in this country. Mr. Fewkes served as secretary until 1910. Professor A. P. Saunders of Hamilton College, Clinton, New York, acted as secretary and editor, 1910-1924. He was followed by W. F. Christman of Minneapolis [later Northbrook, Illinois], 1924-1951; and then by the present secretary and editor, George W. Peyton of Rapidan, Virginia.

The first number of a Society publication appeared in 1915 under the name of Bulletin of Peony News, and the publication under the name of American Peony Society Bulletin has continued to the present time under the editorship of the Society's secretaries.

Before 1900 most of the finest varieties, with the exception of those from Richardson, were of foreign origin. With the new century and the formation of the Society, new American varieties began to appear. These came first from Harrison, Hollis, Mrs. Pleas, Rosenfield, Shaylor, and Thurlow, already mentioned as early members.

The influx of new varieties from them and from abroad was so great that the Society conducted surveys of varieties in which the members were asked to evaluate the quality on a scale of ten points. The results were tabulated in the "Symposiums" of 1916, 1919, and 1921. Nurserymen soon found it to their advantage to quote the Society's ratings on the finest varieties and to drop varieties with low ratings. In 1927, the Society recommended dropping all varieties rated below 7.5. Meanwhile, the exhibition of fine new kinds at the Society's shows gave to the members a totally new concept of quality. The meetings of the Society became places for long discussion of the merits of the new varieties, but most important of all, the members had the opportunity to become acquainted with each other.

On looking back it seems clear that the impetus given by the test garden, the bulletins, and the shows gave the start to the wonderful development of the peony during the past forty years. During that period most of the meetings of the Society were held in the great midwestern states, and many skilled gardeners took up peony growing, took an active part in the affairs of the Society, and produced important new varieties.

A few notes about those who contributed most to the Society and its work are in order. A few of the founders and early officers have already been mentioned and further chapters will mention others. The three who did most were undoubtedly the three secretaries and editors. The first of these was Professor A. P. Saunders who has already been mentioned. The second, W. F. Christman of Minneapolis, took office in 1924. He later moved to Northbrook, Illinois, to be associated in a peony nursery with Paul L. Battey, and still later with Mission Gardens. Over a period of many years he not only produced plants of a uniform high grade for the gardening public, but kept the Society together during difficult times.

The third, George W. Peyton, acted as president for a time and became secretary in 1951. More than any one individual in our time, he came to know peonies and peony growers across the country through his yearly trips starting in May from his home in Virginia into all the peony growing areas, ending up in Northern Minnesota and the Dakotas in July. He came to know practically every grower and breeder and all of their various seedlings and introductions. His accounts of these trips in the Bulletin and in other publications constitute our best source of information concerning the progress of peony growing in this country.

Among the most important of commercial growers of Chinese peonies was Oliver F. Brand who started a nursery in Faribault, Minnesota, in the 1880's. His son, Archie Mack Brand, at first practiced law, but at the turn of the century, joined his father in the nursery business. That his main interest was in peonies, was clear from the start. Many acres were devoted to them. He and his father used open pollination and did no hand crossing. They named fifty-three varieties. After the death of the father, the area given to peonies was even larger and at one time there were over ten acres of seedlings alone. Seventy-six of these were named and introduced.

Archie Brand was a Director of the Minnesota Horticultural Society, a Director for thirty-one years of the American Peony Society, Vice President 1923 to 1925, President 1925 to 1927. He was widely known throughout the peony world and greatly respected. Among his finest varieties were Hansina Brand, Blanche King, Mrs. A. M. Brand, Myrtle Gentry, Krinkled White, Mary Brand, Frances Willard, and Longfellow.

Alonzo B. Franklin lived most of his life in Minneapolis, was many years Justice of the Peace, a school board member, and finally became a nurseryman. He was a raiser of many varieties beginning in 1928, the best known of which are: A. B. Franklin, Loren Franklin, Mrs. F. D. Roosevelt, and Duluth.

Hans Peter Sass came from Germany to Omaha in 1884 and became a farmer. He started peony growing in 1903 on his eighty-acre farm near Washington, Nebraska. He began breeding in 1908 and used hand pollination. He kept careful records of his crosses. He worked mostly with the bomb type as seed parents because they had no Pollen and could not self-fertilize and he used Edulis Superba, Felix Crousse, M. Jules Elie, M. Martin Cahuzac, and other top varieties. He never took any active part in the Society, perhaps on account of language difficulties. He sold out in 1938 to Interstate Nurseries, Hamburg, Iowa.

Lee R. Bonnewitz, a department store owner of Van Wert, Ohio, was for many years one of the most colorful persons in the Society. While President, he did much to increase the membership in the Midwest. He, with L. J. Germann and Charles Wassenberg, grew so many peonies and advertised them so well, that Van Wert came to be known as "The Peony City." It still holds a yearly peony festival.

Mr. Wassenberg, a drygoods merchant, established a large flower nursery for peonies, iris, heremocallis, etc. He was for twenty-six years a Director of the American Peony Society, Vice President in 1934-1936, President 1936-1938. He published one of the most complete peony catalogs and the nursery is still run under the name of Wasserberg Gardens.

Harry F. Little lived and worked in a number of states before settling in Baldwinsville, New York, where he established one of the finest peony nurseries. He is said to have been the first to use cold storage to keep his flowers in good condition for the latest shows.

Ernest Flint Kelsey of East Aurora, New York, was general manager of an electric company in Buffalo. The exact date when he began peony growing apparently is not known, but some of his first seedlings were introduced in 1933, and from then until his death there was a steady stream of very fine varieties that came from his garden. Some of the finest of these were: The Fleece, Rare China, To-Kalon, Marilla Beauty, and Mel Gedge.

Col. Jesse C. Nicholls was graduated from the University of Alabama before attending West Point. For many years he was in charge of military instruction at Cornell. He died in 1961. He was one of the most remarkable of the peony (38-39) breeders and his varieties which began to come out about 1935 have consistently held a high place. Of the thirty-two varieties he named and introduced, we can mention here Mrs. Livingston Farrand, named for the wife of the President of Cornell, Mary E. Nicholls, Florence Nicholls, Florence Ellis, Harry F. Little, Nancy Nicholls, George W. Peyton, A. B. C. Nicholls, J. C. Nicholls, George J. Nicholls, Kate Barry, and Mrs. Wilder Bancroft.

Allen J. Wild of Sarcoxie, Missouri, joined his father in the Gilbert H. Wild and Son Nursery, then already famous and today probably the world's leading nursery of peonies, iris and daylilies. This firm yearly sells carloads of cut peonies. The best known of their peonies are Hargrove Hudson, Albuquerque, and The Mighty Mo.

Eugene H. Lins of Cologne, Minnesota, operates a nursery and has grown splendid seedlings using hand pollination and keeping careful records. Among his finest varieties are Ramona Lins, Dolorodel, Mandaleen, and Tondeleyo.

William H. Krekler grew up on his father's farms in Ohio and Indiana. He studied landscape architecture at the University of Illinois. He worked in a number of states for the famous firm of Olmsted Brothers. He has managed the Peacock Nursery of Akron, Ohio, since 1928, and also manages farms in West Elkton, Ohio. He was instrumental in starting a peony nursery in England. He is now growing about 1300 kinds of peonies and has three acres of seedlings. He has named many splendid peonies, among them Corinne Wersan, Russell Emrick, and Gertrude Cox. He bought out the stock of such breeders as Winslow, Claybaugh, and H. L. Smith, and parts of many other collections, and has run special tests on varieties of a number of other breeders.

The only Canadian to make important contributions to peonies is Lyman W. Cousins of London, Ontario. He is a lithographer and photographer, interested in gardening and plant breeding for over forty years. His best known variety is Ann Cousins, introduced in 1946.

Many, many others, men and women, have done much to improve the peony as a garden flower and to make it more popular.

It is not possible to write about all of them, but their names and at least something about their work will be found in the

Appendix B.