of the Herbaceous Peonies
Early History of Peony Growing
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
the last decade of the century great numbers of named varieties of
Chinese peonies were brought to this country by nurserymen.
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.