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The Professor and the Peony

The first Saunders peony I ever planted, many years ago, was ‘Late Windflower’. At the time I had never heard of its breeder, Professor A. P. Saunders, nor did I know much about peonies in general other than that they were divided into two major groups, herbaceous and tree. I probably ordered it because I liked the name. When ‘Late Windflower’ finally bloomed, however, it turned out to be intriguingly different from the peonies I was familiar with. The large, white, single flowers were flat and outward-facing, and held high above the foliage; each displayed a prominent circular boss of dangling gold stamens. From a distance, the plant looked like a huge Japanese anemone, an Olympic-weight-lifting-team version of ‘Honorine Jobert’.

I was hooked instantly. I started tracking down other Saunders peonies in catalogs and discovered dozens of other desirable cultivars, from deepest smoldering crimson through every imaginable shade of pink to sparkling white. There was even an unusual lavender called, appropriately, ‘Lavender’. Most were early blooming and single flowered; a number had bluntly lobed or finely divided foliage utterly unlike the usual run of herbaceous peonies. If I had to characterize the group as a whole, I’d say they had a wild, almost specieslike look to them, and thereby hangs a tale.

Until the early decades of the 20th century, the herbaceous peonies that dominated the gardening world were derived from highly bred forms of the species Paeonia lactiflora that arrived in Europe from China in 1784. Known as Chinese or lactiflora peonies, they put the dowdy native European P. officinalis to shame, and quickly prompted a frenzy of peony breeding among nurserymen. By 1900, leading firms such as Lemoine in France, Kelway and Sons in England, and Goos and Koenemann in Germany had released hundreds of new lactiflora cultivars, many of which, such as the white, crimson-flecked ‘Festiva Maxima’ and the frilly pink ‘Sarah Bernhardt’, are still available. They are sumptuous creatures, often highly scented, and tough to boot. If they have a fault, it is that their heavy flower heads are easily dragged down into the mud by late-spring showers, and the reds tend to be a bit somber. But the real problem with the lactifloras was not in the flowers themselves; it was that, from the breeder’s standpoint, the type had been taken as far as it could go, and the best that could be hoped for was more of the same.

This was the situation into which A. P. Saunders stepped when, in the 1920s, he decided to try his hand at peony breeding. A Canadian-born professor of chemistry at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, he seems to have inherited a penchant for horticultural improvement from his father, Dr. William Saunders, who for 25 years was director of the Central Experimental Station in Ottawa, a large, government-run farm, one of whose features was a mile-long perennial trial border.

Saunders was also driven by sheer curiosity. He wasn’t much interested in the hordes of lactiflora cultivars; what engaged him was the challenge of crossing the lactifloras with other peony species to produce a class of plants that eventually came to be known as hybrid peonies. Before Saunders got to work, only a few nurseryman had attempted these kinds of crosses, and had done so on a very limited scale (Lemoine’s crosses between P. lactiflora and P. wittmaniana, which yielded the lovely, pale yellow ‘Le Printemps’ and blush-pink ‘Mai Fleuri’, being one example). Part of the reluctance to pursue this line of breeding stemmed from the ill-founded assumption that, because of genetic barriers, it was unlikely to succeed. Saunders, ever the man of science, was skeptical of this claim. Later in his life he wrote: “When I was younger and more confiding, I was told by a botanist that what I needed was to know the number of chromosomes in the various species and that I would find that where the numbers were alike the species would intercross, but that they would not if the chromosome numbers were different. This suggestion was meant kindly but as later experience showed bore no relation to the facts.”

Indeed. Over a span of almost 30 years, Saunders crossed the lactifloras with every other herbaceous species he could lay his hands on. He started out with a fairly easy cross, between P. lactiflora and poor, despised P. officinalis. The results were stunning. As Saunders reported about these first experiments, “The striking individuals so far in this race are the singles on account of their stature, size and color. At their best they are immense, upstanding, cup-shaped blooms of the most intense glowing and vivid crimson color with a very effective group of stamens sometimes striped with red.” Saunders quickly expanded his pool of parents to include more exciting species such as the fiery red P. peregrina and P. tenuifolia and the anemone-like P. emodi. He even succeeded eventually in getting offspring from one of the most intractable species of all, the primrose-yellow P. mlokosewitschii. It only took about 5,000 tries. Among his last efforts were the so-called Quadruple Hybrids, which contain the genes of four distinct species, the largest number of parents any hybrid peony has even been able to claim.

The nearly 200 herbaceous hybrids Saunders created didn’t come near to exhausting his energy; he was also fascinated by tree peonies. To get his plants into wider circulation, he established a nursery that, after his death in 1953, continued to be run by his daughter, Silvia. In 1977, she sold the nursery’s stock to Dr. David Reath, of Vulcan, Michigan. Since that time, the Saunders hybrids have slipped from the prominence they once enjoyed among gardeners, but they have never disappeared entirely from nursery lists.

So there you have the secret of the Saunders hybrids’ strange beauty: it all boils down to the right mixture of wild genes. But though most of the Saunders peonies look as if they might have been gathered from a stony hillside in the Caucasus or Western China, they have distinct advantages over their parents, chiefly much larger flowers and a far longer blooming period. (With most of the hybrids, you get flowers for a couple of weeks rather than a couple of days, as with the true species.) Still, I think the Saunders hybrids look best in naturalistic situations—in sunny gaps between deciduous shrubs, or on the edge of a woodland—rather than in formal beds and borders, which seem better suited to the opulent lactifloras.

If I had unnumbered acres at my disposal, I’d be tempted to amass as large a collection of Saunders hybrids as possible; but since I’ve got only a fraction of a single acre, and not all of it sunny, I’ve had to make do with a mere handful. Here are some of the loveliest that I’ve either grown myself or seen and admired in bloom.

Outstanding among the whites are ‘Late Windflower’, mentioned above, and its slightly earlier (by a week or two) counterpart, ‘Early Windflower’; ‘Requiem’, with glossy, dark green, boldly lobed foliage; and the towering (to five feet or more) ‘White Innocence’, with anemone-like flowers centered with a curious cluster of green carpels.

Among reds, the following are all worth seeking out: ‘Legion of Honor’, with flaming flowers held well above finely cut foliage; ‘Earlybird’, with even finer, tenuifolia-type foliage; and the huge, semidouble, golden-stamened ‘Lustrous’.

And the pinks—ah, the pinks! What variety and beauty they offer, from the pale, deceptively fragile-looking ‘Sweet May’ to the vivid rose ‘Cytherea’ to the voluptuously rounded, mid-pink ‘Great Lady’.

The Saunders hybrids constitute one of our country’s greatest horticultural legacies. I suggest that you plant a few, if not out of a desire to conserve these splendid peonies for future generations, then simply out of curiosity to see what it was that so inspired the prodigious professor.

A list of Saunders peonies

In general, hybrids released in the late 1940s to early 1950s have a more complex genetic background.

* = Quadruple Hybrid

Whites

Pinks

Reds

Blends and Unusual Colors

A version of this article first appeared in The Bulletin of the Hardy Plant Society of Oregon, vol. 25, no. 1 (spring 2009).