The Gardener's Apprentice

A Peony’s Tale


(Photo courtesy of Old House Gardens)

When I walk around my garden I hear voices.  Sometimes those voices come from across the street, where my neighbor is pulling weeds to the accompaniment of talk radio.  More often though, the voices are inside my head, retelling the stories of each plant that I pass.  Those stories weave themselves together like the fragrance notes in a complex perfume.

Soon there will be another story in the mix.  ‘Frances Willard’, a tall, herbaceous peony, will arrive this fall and bloom next spring.  I bought ‘Frances’ because the flowers are beautiful, with pink buds that open and age to cream petals with touches of peach blush.  It is a vigorous mid-season bloomer, with strong stems and dark green leaves.  The variety has been going strong for over a century and I can already picture it holding forth in a sunny section of m y garden.

The story of this heirloom peony is really several stories.  ‘Frances Willard’ was bred by a well known breeder, named after a redoubtable woman, kept in commerce for years by a small specialist nursery and rescued by yet another specialist plant seller.  The fluffy pink and white blooms carry a lot of history.

‘Frances Willard’, introduced in 1907, was one of many bred by the Brand Nursery, the first such commercial institution in Minnesota.  The firm’s founder, Oliver Brand, established the company in the town of Faribault, but it was most likely his son and successor, Archie, who introduced ‘Frances Willard’.  Archie specialized in varieties of Paeonia lactiflora and, according to several sources, the plants were known for their vigor.  The company thrived, reaching a commercial high point in the 1920’s.  It 1929 the Brands took the unusual step of making Myrtle Gentry, originally hired to run the company’s office, a full partner in the enterprise.  Taking a woman into an established partnership was certainly unusual for the time and says a lot for the abilities of Ms. Gentry and the sensibilities of the Brands.  It is not surprising that one of the company’s best peony cultivars was named ‘Myrtle Gentry’.

Another strong, competent woman, Frances Willard (1839-1898), was celebrated in her time as a feminist, educator and founder of the temperance movement.  She was born near Rochester, New York, and attended college in Illinois.  Her career led her through various teaching and administrative positions, culminating in 1871, when she became the first Dean of Women at Northwestern University.  During the second half of her career, Willard turned her attention women’s suffrage and the temperance movement. Her activism helped lead to the founding of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in 1874.  She was known for exhorting women to “do everything”—engaging in all forms of public and private activism for the causes she espoused.

Admirable though she was in many ways, Frances Willard was not immune to prejudices that were widespread in her day.  While campaigning for the temperance movement she made derogatory statements about members of minority ethnic groups that troubled some of her contemporaries and still concern her modern admirers.  Still, her accomplishments were an inspiration to many people and her fame was widespread.  Nine years after her death, the Brands named a strong young peony seedling ‘Frances Willard’ in her honor.  Willard’s name is not as widely known today, but her namesake plants lives on thanks to a couple of nursery owners devoted to keeping the best of the past.

The first of those was Sherman Nursery, an Iowa concern founded in 1897.  Family owned until 2009, the nursery specialized in peonies and maintained a large collection of specimens introduced in the nineteenth century.  ‘Frances Willard’ was among them.  Hard hit by the 2008 recession, the family finally sold the business to another, larger nursery in 2009.  This resulted in many of the older peonies being removed from commerce.  Nursery owner Scott Kunst of Old House Gardens has reintroduced some of the Sherman Nursery’s peonies, including ‘Frances Willard’ and ‘Chestine Gowdy’, another Brand peony with pink, cream and crimson petals.  Kunst also contacted the University of Michigan, which maintains a collection of heirloom varieties in the Peony Garden at the Nichols Arboretum in Ann Arbor.  Arboretum officials, who have a wide circle of contacts in the peony world, also agreed to help with the Sherman peony preservation effort.

‘France Willard’ the peony has all of the strength and vitality of the original Frances Willard without the personal baggage.  The plant is an artifact of an earlier time and a tribute not only to its namesake, but to those who have worked to ensure the survival of heirloom varieties.  To order, contact Old House Gardens, 536 Third St., Ann Arbor, MI 48103, (734)995-1486;  Catalog $2.00.