Tuesday, February 8, 2005

Rediscovering The Peonies at Métis - An Update

by  M Pratte
Taken from The Peony C to C February 2005

After an additional two summers looking at the peony collection at the Jardins de Métis, it is ime to update the information as to which plants have been identified, which have been returned to the garden, and where the collection is going from here.

The work is difficult and slow going!  Many of the peonies in the collection are the voluptuous pink doubles which Elsie seemed to favour, and positively identifying these, when they resemble each other so much, is not an easy matter.  To add to this, the bloom period in Métis, while later than that in most of the rest of the country, is quite exteded once it gets going, and it is impossible to be there for the two to three weeks (sometimes more) that it takes to see all of these beautiful flowers in situ.  There are, therefore, still gaps in our knowledge of what is actually on site, but progress is made every year.

First, to the early hybrids and species in the collection.  May of the species peonies on Mrs. Reford's  list have older or suspect names, such as Paeonia woodwardiana, which is probably Peaonia veitchii var. woodwardiana.  Whether they were incorrectly named when shipped, she made an error in transcribing the names, or the taxonomy has changed over the years, is of no consequence, as it helps us make educated guesses as to what is there.

There are two distinct veitchii type plants - one about 2 1/2 feet tall with side buds, the other shorter without side buds.  Both bear the same nodding pink flowers which fade from a deep pink bud to almost white at petal fall, but they are perhaps two different subspecies or even seedlings which developed over the long history of the garden.  No matter what they are, they are absolutely gorgwous, always drawing comments from visitors to the gardens in late June/ early July.

Three seedlings of Paeonia mlokosewitschii were re-introduced last fall, and all overwintered well, sending up their distinctive rounded pinky blue leaves this spring.  If history repeats itself, there should be some lovely light yellow flowers within the next couple of years.  Mrs. Reford purchased her 'mlokos' in the fall of 1936, and notes in a journal entry of 1939 that, on June 26th "mlokosewitschii still opening more blooms - 13 in all.  A most charming and attractive plant".

There is no sign of Paeonia wittmanniana, and an early attempt to reintroduce it two years ago met with failure.   Once a reliable source is found, we will try once again.  Mrs. Reford spoke of Paeonia wittmanniana splendens.  Repeated efforts to determine what this is have born no fruit.  The supplier, Barr & Sons of London, England, has been out of business for many years, and when their offices burned to the ground, no records were left.  Our only hope is to find old Barr & Sons catalogues which might hold a description or a photograph, but these are hard to locate.  An inquiry made to Kelways, the holder of the National Collection of Peonies for the U.k., and peony nursery since 1851, left us only with a - "never heard of it".

The early hybrids are nothing less than exquisite, despite the fact they hide their identities well.  A new root  of 'Chalice', for example, was brought in from France (with the kind help of La Pivoinerie D'Aoust), and compare to the one we thought to be that hybrid.  They are not at all the same, with, amongst other things, the one original to the gardens having very thin, tissue paper like petals and the new one sporting waxy petals of good substance.  Have the solid and the climate of  Métis altered the original 'Chalice' after many decades?  Was the original incorrectly marked when purchased?   Despite our frustrated attempt to properly identify the original plant, it has to be said that both of the'Chalice' peonies are outstanding.

The 'Avant Garde' peony mentioned in the first article turned out not to be that, but there is one plant of 'Avant Garde'  on site.  It was compared to specimens in a large peony garden in Matane, at teh Montreal Botanic Gardens, and in my own, so we are confident enough to finally attach a label.

That leaves us with the 'Avant Garde' impostor - the 'mystery peony' of the Jardins de Métis.  It has been shown, in pictures and 'in the flesh' to many people, and the general consensus is that it most likely is a mlokowewitschii / wittmanniana cross.  This makes us stop in our tracks - could the beautiful pink flowers tinged with salmon be a naturally occurring hybrid?  Both Paeonia wittmanniana and Paeonia mlokosewitschii were not only in the gardens, but their bloom times overlapped  (as noted in the diaries of June 16th, 1046).  While this is a bit of a shot in the dark, it is a distinct possibility.  With no other leads to go by, we are strongly leaning towards adopting this provenance for the mystery peony.

As mentioned earlier, the pink lactifloras pose a bit of a problem of identification, with 'Mons Jules Elie' being the only one to be positively identified to date.  Of the 18 different lactifloras found in Elsie's diaries, 12 of them have been reintroduced to the gardens for comparison to those already there.  They should all bloom within the next couple of years, and with luck, this will confirm our suspicions about certain plants.

Two tree peonies, 'La Lorraine' and 'Louise Mouchelet' came from France in the fall of 2003 , and the latter bloomed in the summer of 2004.  One recently planted, unnamed tree peony has survived a couple of Métis' harsh winters under a blanket of snow, bringing hope that the original collection of these interesting peonies might soon be well established once again at the Reford Gardens.  Unfortunately, many of the original plants are no longer in commerce -  a Kelways introduction, 'Langport Lad' being one notable example - so unless we are able to stumble across them in some older, probably English garden, they will never again bloom along the shores of the St. Lawrence as they did so many years ago.

As for 'Lady Byng', well, she continues to elude us.  There has been contact, however, with the relatives of the breeder of this peony, Harry Norton, as well as the person who now owns his old home where this, and many of his other peonies, were bred.  We keep our fingers crossed that someone, somewhere has this very rare Canadian peony - what a thrill it would be to find her again, and return her to the guardians of Elsie's paradise.

Looking to the future, two extraordinary peonies have been added to those at the Reford Gardens.  One is 'Early Windflower', a stunning early white peony with small, nodding white blooms bred by A.P. Saunders, who crossed Peonia emodi with Paeonia veitchii to produce this gorgeous plant.  The other, 'Garden Treasure' is a more recent introduction by Don Hollingsworth.  This Itoh hybrid is a wonderful shade of yellow, highlighted with red flares.

Both of these peonies would have, to my mind, been high on Elsie's list of 'must haves'.  'Early Windflower', for it's beauty and suitability in these wonderfully feminine gardens, along with the fact it was bred by Prof. Saunders a man she much admired.  And 'Garden Treasure' , because it is unusual, still quite rare, and would most likely thrive at Métis.  The fact that it is beautiful and has blooms which open over a period of a couple of weeks - likely longer in the cool climate of the gardens - would also make it desirable.  To top it all off, it was the winner of the APS Gold Medal
in 1996, which would affirm it has that special something!

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