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The Peony Garden Initiative

The Peony Garden Initiative is a multi-year renovation project to transform the Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden into an internationally recognized reference collection, a conservation model for other historic cultivar collections, and a destination for peony lovers. The Peony Garden will illustrate the natural and social history of the peony from its wild species—native to Europe and Asia—to the historic cultivars that form the core of the Peony Garden as we know it today. All types of peonies will be included - herbaceous, tree, and intersectional. 

Generous gifts from our donors—with special thanks to the Porter Family Foundation and Philip and Kathy Power—and grants from the Stanley Smith Horticultural Trust and the Institute for Museum and Library Services have made this phase of the Peony Garden Initiative possible.

Project Goals

  • Cultivar Verification

It takes a team! Several years of intense work sessions by an international board of advisors have come to fruition. Nearly all the herbaceous peony cultivars in the garden have had their identity confirmed by peony and historic plant experts. Now growers, enthusiasts, and the public have a reference collection of correctly named historic peony cultivars. In addition, the Peony Database links these plants to the historic records published by the American Peony Society, other period references, and catalogs. Why "nearly all"? A handful seem atypical or remain mysterious - for now . . . 
In the coming seasons there will be more than one way to verify a peony. Beginning in 2013, we are collaborating with Dr. Nastassia ['Nastya'] Vlasava and her colleagues at the Central Botanical Gardens, Minsk, in the Republic of Belarus, to trial DNA-fingerprinting of verified peony cultivars at both institutions. This will model unambiguous identification of these cultivars throughout the world and allow the project to be expaned to additional cultivars as the definitive identification tool. It will also build the molecular database to explore the relationships of the cultivars to each other, and to their wild ancestors. The Central Botanical Gardens, Minsk, maintains a significant peony collection including cultivars developed in the former Soviet Union that are virtually unknown in North America.
  • Collection Restoration

A portion of the herbaceous peonies that were originally planted in the Peony Garden were removed for various reasons. At the beginning, this was a trial garden, so some turnover was to be expected. In later decades some were replaced with more modern varieties while other spaces were left empty. In 2010 we began to fill these empty spaces with missing peonies from the original design and we added peonies of historical significance. In 2015 the main herbaceous beds were reorganized to provide several beds that are being planted by national origin, floral type, or to show breeding relationships.
  • Collection Expansion

When Aubrey Tealdi designed the Peony Garden in 1922 it included plans for a tree peony collection on the adjacent hillside, now known as Laurel Ridge. While there had been a small collection of tree peonies growing there over the years, beginning in 2011 we began to expand the tree peony collection to include important and historically significant varieties from China, Japan, and (in the future) Korea. Tree peonies by European and American breeders are grouped together. Having the collections different kinds of peonies as well as their range of cultural and asethetic expressions will allow visitors and scholars to examine the differences among Eastern and Western peony forms and style. Click here for the expansion plan.
  • Peony Database

The Peony Database is to provide visitors verified pictures and accurate, historically imporant descriptions of peonies. Our goal is to be the online site where public visitors, growers, students and researchers can:

  • browse pictures of specific peony cultivars for inspiration on which peonies to include in their own gardens,
  • find reliable historic information relevant to their research projects,
  • find verified specimens for their research projects, and
  • find both live plants and the International Peony Registration information with ease. 


At present the Peony Database lists plants at the Nichols Arboretum. In the coming seasons it is expected to hold the on-line peony listings of the partner gardens in the NAPCC. The Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum is already working with the American Peony Society's International Registrar to create this deep and complex online database before the Peony Garden Centennial in 2022.


Conserving the Collection 

Over half of the herbaceous cultivars in the Peony Garden are rare or no longer in the trade. Some are likely extinct other than the individuals here. Part of the conservation mission is to duplicate key cultivars on display in the peony collection at off-site agencies. By growing the plants at dispersed sister gardens and institutions we reduce the risk of loss. We invite inquiries from interested institutions that have a mission related to history or conservation. Inquiries should be directed to
Left: Our verified 'Sylvia Saunders' is thought to be extinct commercially and extremely rare world-wide. Changes in lifestyles of gardeners, horticultural fashions, and resultant market demand make some of these otherwise extinct historic peonies extremely valued today by gardeners, specialists, and commercial breeders.

Establishing a National Reference Collection

In June 2009, the Peony Garden became the founding garden in the Peony Consortium through the North American Plant Collections Network (PCN). In February, 2013, the Peony Garden at the Nichols Arboretum was awarded Full Status Accreditation in the PCN. We are working with the Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College and the Montreal Botanical Garden as lead partners to create a network of peony gardens across the continent that will represent and conserve the genus Paeonia

Expert Assistance

To assist with the Peony Garden Initiative, Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum created the Peony Advisory Board, which is comprised of international peony experts and enthusiasts. Their assistance has been, and remains to be, absolutely essential to this project. Find out more about our Peony Advisors in the Peony Resources section of our web site.