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A Book About Ann Arbor's Historic Peony Garden: A Place Of Hope And Healing

Jun 8, 2020

Pink Peony from Nichols Arboretum and "Passion for Peonies" book
Credit Lisa Barry

There are nearly 700 peony plants inside the Nichols Arboretum, part of the University of Michigan Matthaei Botanical Gardens next to the University Medical Center.  The garden opened to the public over 90 years ago, but visitors have been discouraged to visit this year to observe social distancing advisories in light of the current global health crisis we're experiencing.  But there is one way to connect with the garden through a newly-published book about it called "Passion for Peonies."  WEMU's Lisa Barry talks with the creators of the book, garden curator David Michener and the director of Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum, Bob Grese.


The book "Passion for Peonies" has been described as ”A love letter to a magical public space at the University of Michigan and to the broader history and culture of peony gardening.”   A special centennial celebration is being planned in the garden for 2022, celebrating its deep history and cultural connections.  The garden is not known just for its beautiful blooms but is considered profoundly meaningful to many.  There are many local connections to the plants there are in the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti and to Peony art, including local artist Janet Kohler, whose pastel drawings of the garden are included in the book and peony tiles made by Motawi Tile Works.  

Peony Bloom Tile from Motawi Tileworks
Credit Motawi Tileworks / motawi.com

The book can be obtained here, which provides the following description:

"There’s no more breathtaking signal of summer’s onset than the blooming of peonies.  Stunningly beautiful and relatively easy to grow, peonies are a favorite flower everywhere they can be cultivated and for good reason: the heady fragrances and enchanting colors of a peony-rich display create an immersive experience that has enamored generations of garden lovers across the world.  This passion is on full display each June at the historic Peony Garden of the University of Michigan’s Nichols Arboretum."

Peony garden at Nichols Arboretum
Credit Lisa Barry / 89.1 WEMU

"Originally planted in 1922, the Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden now boasts North America’s largest public collection of heirloom herbaceous peonies.  The Peony Garden has become a sacred space for the Ann Arbor community, a not-to-be-missed sensation when it erupts each season, as the Ann Arbor Observer once wrote, in “a riot of color, of crimson, rose and shell pink intermingled with fluffy pompoms of creamy white.”  The rather short period of peak bloom—about two fleeting weeks each year—only seems to intensify the garden’s appeal, drawing thousands of visitors annually to this spectacular “living museum” on campus that showcases upwards of 10,000 blossoms."

"Richly illustrated with hundreds of striking color photos, Passion for Peonies collects short essays that celebrate the story of the Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden as well as the rich social history of peony gardening that it is an integral part of.  Together, these pieces comprise a love letter both to a magical public space at the University of Michigan and to the broader history and culture of peony gardening.  The book will appeal to readers interested in the University of Michigan, the history of public gardens, and, of course, peonies!"

White peonies at Nichols Arboretum
Credit Lisa Barry / 89.1 WEMU

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— Lisa Barry is the host of All Things Considered on WEMU. You can contact Lisa at 734.487.3363, on Twitter @LisaWEMU, or email her at lbarryma@emich.edu