$500,000 Donation to Preserve Heirloom Peonies at U-M


A $500,000 donation to the Matthew Bontanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum at the University of Michigan will help restore and protect the largest collection of heirloom peonies in North America. The gift from Martha G. Parfet, granddaughter of U-M alum Dr. William E. Upjohn, is the largest endowment gift in the history of the university’s gardens and arboretum.

Founded in 1886 in Kalamazoo, the Upjohn Co. was originally a pharmaceutical manufacturer that went on to develop Rogaine, Motrin, Halcion, and Xanax. The company eventually merged or sold portions of its product lines to Monsanto, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson.

The W.E. Upjohn Peony Garden Fund will play a key role in establishing the botanical facility as a model for historic gardens, including the creation of a network of partners for backing-up rare peonies and the expansion of a broader group of historic herbaceous and tree peonies.

“This gift recognizes the importance of W. E. Upjohn’s original gift (a donation of 280 peony varieties) and its promise for the future,” says Robert Grese, director of the gardens and arboretum. “Our project provides an excellent model for documenting and preserving living historic plant collections. We hope to preserve both the plants themselves as well as their important stories. Peonies are especially rich in this regard, having been treasured by so many different cultures.”

One of the aims of the current project is to expand the historic garden to include key varieties from Chinese, Japanese, and Korean sources and to build cross-cultural connections with university and community partners in those countries. The Parfet gift will also allow Matthaei-Nichols to continue to document and preserve both common and rare cultivars within the collection and to acquire important varieties that have been lost over time.

“We hope to acquire additional cultivars of the period to round out representation of key breeders, plant forms, or other characteristics currently limited in the collection,” Grese says. “Ultimately, we aim to bring together leading thinkers and practitioners in modern horticulture, botanical research, plant conservation, and garden history and preservation.”

Parfet says that, much like her own family’s connection to Michigan, the Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden combines a link to the past with a strong mission of preservation for generations still to come. “We’re honored that U-M has cared for the peony collection for more than 90 years and proud to be part of the effort to preserve the collection for the future,” Parfet says.

Last spring, the Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden launched mbgna.umich.edu/peony, which offers a clearinghouse of information on the flower. Viewers can search a large database by peony name, breeder, color, and other characteristics of the plants growing in the arboretum.

The peony garden, where 10,000 flowers bloom in late May and early June, attracts thousands of annual visitors throughout Michigan and the Midwest.