The Early Development of Hybrid Peonies

The previous pages have told the story of the remarkable rise of interest in the peony in Europe and America during the later half of the 19th Century and the first quarter of the 20th Century. The great part that the American Peony Society has played, and is still playing, in the development of the peony in this country was particularly emphasized.

Most of this interest has been centered on the garden varieties or forms, what we are now asked to call "clones" or "cultivars," of the Chinese peony, Paeonia albiflora. These new varieties were usually produced by sowing seeds of particularly attractive forms which presumably had been cross fertilized by bees, and then selecting from the resulting seedlings those that seemed superior. There had been little hand crossing between the different named varieties of the Chinese peony and still less hybridization between species.

Some few attempts at producing hybrids between different species had been begun in Europe in the 1880's or 1890's. The great Victor Lemoine, who was later to raise the famous Le Cygne, crossed albiflora with wittmanniana, and among the resulting hybrids were Avant Garde, Le Printemps. Mai Fleuri. and Messagere. Georg Arends of Germany is credited with crossing peregrina [the identity of the plant called peregrina is open to question] with wittmanniana to produce the variety Alpha. The Peony Manual also reports, without particulars, a cross wittmanniana X officinalis.

It is also probable, but not definitely established, that Peter Barr of London may have made species crosses on Paeonia officinalis (for he introduced some fine seedlings under the names Ceres, Charmer, Otto Froebel, and Sunbeam) and on Paeonia arietina, from which a superior cultivar was obtained which he named Northern Glory. Our geneticists, cytologists, and morphologists may some day shed light on the parentage of these plants, but whatever records Barr may have kept were lost in a fire in his office long after his death. We know little or nothing of the means by which these hybrids [if they were really hybrids] were produced.

About the time of World War I three members of the American Peony Society began to make crosses, unknown to each other, between Paeonia albiflora and P. officinalis. The first of these was A. P. Saunders, then secretary of the Society; the second, Edward Auten, Jr., of Princeville, Illinois, and the third, Lyman Glasscock of Elwood, Illinois. Later through the meetings of the Society they came to know each other and to inspire half a dozen other peony growers to make the same crosses.

As a later section will be devoted to A. P. Saunders and his remarkable work in crossing many species, it will be sufficient to note here that the first results of the albiflora X officinalis crosses were introduced to the garden public at the 1928 Boston Peony Show. He called them the Challenger Strain and they included the cultivars Challenger, Buccancer, Defender, and others.

Mr. Auten had originally entered the real estate and insurance business. His love of the peony caused him, early in life, to start a peony nursery.

Through a period of about forty years he issued descriptive catalogs offering his peonies for sale. In addition to the general commercial varieties which he grew by the acre, he raised, named and introduced about two hundred and fifty varieties of Chinese peonies and about fifty hybrids between albiflora and officinalis.

Great numbers of gardeners knew him as a creator of these beautiful peonies and most of all admired his fine non-fading reds. In his own opinion his finest Chinese varieties were Auten's Pride, Mary Auten, Carolina Moon, Nippon Brilliant, and White Delight. A few of his most famous hybrids are Auten's Red, Chocolate Soldier, and John Harvard. Many of his varieties will be described in a future chapter.

Mr. Glasscock began life as a bricklayer and later became a building contractor. He made a hobby, as well as an occupation and a business, of growing flowers and hybridizing. During his thirty-five years of breeding peonies he named about a dozen Chinese varieties and some fifty hybrids. Since his death, the nursery has been carried on by his daughter, Mrs. Elizabeth Glasscock Falk.

Mr. Glasscock is perhaps most famous for his variety Red Charm, which is a double red hybrid bomb which has won many of the top prizes wherever it has been shown. Among the other fine varieties are: Little Gem. Golden Glow, Flame, May Delight, Sunbright, Bright Knight, Mahogany. Gay Cavalier, and Black Monarch, all of which are albiflora-officinalis hybnds. In addition, from a cross between officinalis and tenuifolia apparently not attempted by anyone else, he produced another hybrid which he named Laddie. This has the narrow and very lovely fern-like foliage of tenuifolia and is entirely distinct. Many of the varieties will be described in future chapters.

Besides these three men, to whom we owe the great majority of American peony hybrids, there are several others whose work should not pass unnoticed.

Walter Mains of Belle Center, Ohio, taught grade school and was a transport postal clerk before he entered the peony business. He has been breeding peonies for over thirty years, but his varieties (40-41) have not yet been widely distributed. His finest is probably Frances Mains. This is an albiflora of which we shall probably hear a good deal more in the future. Among his hybrid varieties are Ann Zahller, Belle Center, Buckeye Belle, and Walter Mains.

Col. Benjamin P. Guppy, of Melrose, Massachusetts, made a good many officinalis crosses in the early 1920's which were frequent prize winners at the shows of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. Among his varieties were Eeples, named for two of his grandchildren or nieces, and Passadumkeag. While these were fine varieties for their day, he evidently did not feel they were important enough to introduce and they are probably no longer available.

William S. Bockstoce, of Pittsburgh, has worked for many large companies and was for a time in the building contracting business. He has also long been a building and loan association official. He is a member of many horticultural societies, in addition to the American Peony Society, which he joined in 1916. His greatest interest has been experimenting with foreign plants, growing wild flowers, and hybridization. In addition to peonies, he has done interesting work with ornamental flowering crab-apples.

Among his splendid hybrids between albiflora and officinalis are Jean E. Bockstoce, Mary E. Hall, Diana Parks and Howard R. Watkins, all doubles in red and pink shades.

Mrs. Mary E. G. Freeborn, of Proctor, Vermont, attended Vermont Academy and Cornell, and the Women's Medical College of New York. She worked in research laboratories in New York City and taught bacteriology and chemistry. She has a fifty-acre wild flower preserve and has done experimental farming with fruit trees. During the past forty-five years she had grown a great variety of plants. Her best known peony hybrids are Angelo Cobb Freeborn, Red Signal, Sunfast, and Garden Sentinel.