Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Historic Clarke Peony Collection at the Devonian Botanic Garden

by Deborah Merriam

The Devonian Botanic Garden (DBG) in Devon, Alberta (near Edmonton) has a sizeable collection of herbaceous and species peonies, most of which were donated by Cyril M. Clarke in the late 1940s. This collection includes a number of now-rare cultivars, and provides us with a fascinating glimpse into the history of peony cultivation in Alberta.

Cyril M. Clarke was born in 1882 in St. Lucia, British West Indies, the son of an Anglican minister and his West Indian wife. He was educated at Harvard and Cambridge, served in World War I with the British army, then emigrated to Canada. In 1920 he established his homestead at Teepee Creek, a hamlet 35 miles NE of Grande Prairie (250 miles NW of Edmonton). As a black, highly educated, lifelong bachelor, he must have puzzled his neighbors, who described him as an eccentric recluse and dismissed his farming abilities. After a severe dust allergy forced him to lease most of his farm in 1923, Clarke became a passionate collector of peonies who spent as much as he could spare on new cultivars. He’s said to have known the plants by sight, and had a scholarly grasp of each cultivar’s origin and characteristics. Clarke carefully authenticated the identity of the cultivars in his collection, where possible purchasing them directly from the breeder, and kept meticulous records of the dates and sources of all new acquisitions and their performance. Furthermore, Teepee Creek sits in a Chinook belt near the zone 2a/1b border, which he recognized was ideally situated for cold-hardiness trials. It’s estimated conservatively that Clarke tested about 2000 cultivars over his thirty years of collecting; as a result, he became a regular contributor to the American Peony Society’s Bulletin and was consulted by many of the leading hybridizers of the day. As he got older, Clarke developed a severe allergy to peonies, and cataracts caused his eyesight to deteriorate. Despite this he continued to care for his peonies himself, on his hands and knees, wearing long sleeves and a handkerchief over his face.

In the fall of 1947, the 43 best-performing cultivars from Clarke’s collection were planted in a long display bed at the Agriculture Canada Beaverlodge Research Station (BRS), to accompany the landscaping of the Station’s first office building. Nearly sixty years later, these plants still bloom magnificently from the last week of June until mid-July. They were originally planted in short rows of three plants per variety, in the layout used for early APS trials, and have not been moved. However, over time some rows became mixed, as divisions from vigorous plants in both this bed and the BRS’ trial beds (maintained from 1922-1965) were used to fill gaps. No records were kept of these alterations to the planting plan, complicating attempts by BRS staff to positively identify the cultivars.

Simultaneously, Clarke arranged the donation of the majority of his collection to the University of Alberta, in part from his hospital bed. His deteriorating eyesight during this period is heartbreakingly apparent in his handwriting in the correspondence, and many of the plants had to be dug and shipped with the assistance of friends. Between 1948 and 1951, Clarke donated his records and 921 specimens consisting of 331 named varieties, 3 species, and 14 hybrids to the Department of Horticulture. This collection included all of the proven cultivars planted at the BRS, as well as other cultivars considered highly desirable by pre-WWII plantsmen, and many cultivars that were being tested for hardiness prior to their general introduction to the gardening public. Canadian-bred cultivars in the collection included James W. Keagey’s ‘Dieppe’, ‘Dunkirk’, ‘Falaise’, ‘Margaret Logie’, ‘Nosegay’, ‘Premier Yoshida’, ‘Rose Bowl’, ‘White Bomber’, and ‘White Cockade’; William Brown’s unnamed seedling #666, ‘Donna Jean’, and ‘Fairleigh’; Dr. F.G. Brethour’s ‘Blanche Elie’; and Evelyn Lossing’s ‘Louise Lossing’. Clarke’s correspondence with the U. of A. indicates that the Department of Horticulture intended to continue collecting new sorts and to evaluate and report the performance of the cultivars in the collection to the APS. The collection was initially planted to the north of McKenzie Hall, in 6 formal beds near the old greenhouse and tennis courts, and marked with a commemorative bronze plaque. Sadly, Clarke passed away before the plants could bloom and their identification be verified by him.

As the University grew, the herbaceous peony collection was moved to a new location beside Kelsey Hall. The plants were also regularly used as landscaping material by the Grounds department. No records have been found to date of the changes made during this period. In 1965, some divisions of the original plants were supplied to the university’s newly established Botanic Garden near Devon (zone 2a). The rest of the collection was moved at a later date from campus to its current location, in broad island beds of very sandy soil at the northern end of the garden. During these moves, some plants were lost and some labels misplaced, and reidentification was complicated by the inadequacy of early descriptions to differentiate similar varieties. Finally, a number of labels were accidentally lost during weeding in the 1980s. For want of peony expertise on the DBG’s staff, care of the herbaceous peony collection since the 1970s has been limited to routine maintenance. Only a handful of newer cultivars have been added, either as donations from local growers or acquisitions during the establishment of the Kurimoto Japanese Garden. A separate species peony collection (which I’ll describe in a future article) has fared rather better, thanks to continued acquisitions and research done by DBG staff.

The Clarke collection is of special interest to peony fanciers, both for historic reasons and on the merit of the plants themselves, which are both very hardy and increasingly rare in home gardens. The Alberta chapter of the CPS has proposed a long-term partnership with the DBG. Our goals will be to preserve the collection and improve the care of the plants, identify unlabelled plants where possible, reintroduce ‘lost’ cultivars from the original Clarke collection, broaden the collection to include recent cultivars, and eventually replant the collection in a design more suitable for easy viewing and year-round interest. In turn, the DBG has offered us meeting space and the opportunity for members interested in hybridization to use plants in the collection as breeding stock.


“History, Management, and Recommended Varieties of Peonies in the Peace River Region”, John G.N. Davidson, 1991. Agriculture Canada Northern Research Group Bulletin (NRG 90-09b).

"Cyril M. Clarke, Widely Known Canadian Horticulturist, Dies At Home" (obituary), George W. Peyton, American Peony Society Bulletin, no. 127, Dec 1952.

Collected correspondence of Cyril M. Clarke with R. J. Hilton and R. H. Knowles, University of Alberta Department of Horticulture, 1947-1951. Devonian Botanic Garden archives.

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