Jane Bryden’s tree peonies: An uncle’s gift becomes a glorious garden in Belchertown

  • Companion of Serenity peony at the home of Jane Bryden. JERREY ROBERTS—

  • The ‘Yagumo’ (‘Layered Clouds’) is a Japanese variety of peony. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Yagumo peony at the home of Jane Bryden GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • At left, ‘Companion of Serenity’

  • Companion of Serenity peony at the home of Jane Bryden. JERREY ROBERTS—

  • Companion of Serenity peony at the home of Jane Bryden. JERREY ROBERTS—

  • Above, a ‘Maria Theresa’ peony GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Jane Bryden with her dogs, Rudi, left, and Otter, stands amid the tree peonies at her home in Belchertown. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • All but one of Bryden’s peonies came from her Uncle William Gratwick’s garden. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

For the Gazette
Published: 7/28/2016 3:02:05 PM

By MICKEY RATHBUN

When Jane Bryden and her husband, Chris Krueger, sold their house in Amherst five years ago to move to a smaller house in Belchertown, they insisted on adding a special clause to their purchase-and-sale agreement.

“We moved out in the spring, but we wanted to be able to go back to the house the following fall to dig up our tree peonies and move them to our new garden,” Bryden said.

Bryden says she cherishes her tree peonies as if they were family members. And, in a way, they are. Her uncle William Gratwick began to propagate the plants back in the 1940s at Linwood Farm in Pavilion, New York, a small town 35 miles south of Rochester, in the farmlands of the Genesee Valley. All but one of her 15 tree peonies came from her Uncle Bill’s garden.

“For me, it’s a wonderful link with that part of the family and the farm,” she said.

Built in 1900, Linwood was Bryden’s grandparents’ summer house.

“My father remembered going there as a child. Uncle Bill bought the farm from his siblings in the 1940s. There are still the bones of a formal garden, a walled vegetable garden, and a waterway with a fountain in the middle covered with lichen and moss. It’s an unbelievably romantic spot.”

Linwood was also an important laboratory for the hybridizing of tree peonies. Gratwick worked with A. P. Saunders, a renowned horticulturist and professor at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, and Nassos Daphnis, a family friend, artist and partner in the tree peony business.

“Daphnis was the man responsible for our entire hybridizing program,” Gratwick wrote in a family memoir.

Divide and multiply

Unlike ordinary herbaceous peonies that die back to the ground every year, tree peonies (Paeonia suffruticosa) are woody shrubs. They can grow up to 5 feet high and have flowers as big as 10 inches across.

Native to central and southern China and Tibet, tree peonies have been cultivated since the 6th century C.E. for their ornamental and cultural value as well as their supposed medicinal properties.  In China, the tree peony is known as the “king of flowers.”

Bryden’s cultivation of tree peonies began in the early 1980s, when she moved to a house in Williamsburg.

“Uncle Bill sent me a bare root tree peony. That was ‘Marchioness.’ When I moved to Amherst in 1989, I brought it with me. It divides easily. Two became seven.”

Although Bryden has acquired many other tree peonies since then, Marchioness has a special place in her heart. Its blossoms cover a spectrum of mauve, peach, apricot and lemon. At the center is a deep-red throat and bright-yellow stamens.

“It’s not as showy and full as some of the others, but it’s my favorite,” she said.

After moving to Amherst, Bryden was given a second foundational tree peony, named ‘Companion of Serenity,’ by her aunt Harriet Gratwick, who was living in Amherst.

“She had it in her garden in Echo Hill, but it wasn’t thriving. So she gave it to me,” she said.

‘Companion of Serenity’ produces huge, ruffled, pale-pink blossoms with a raspberry throat. This year, Bryden said, she counted 93 blossoms when she deadheaded the plant.

“This one is special because it’s one of my uncle’s introductions, meaning that he hybridized it,” she said.

A short, showy season

For approximately two-and-a-half weeks every summer, starting around Memorial Day, the tree peonies take a star turn in Bryden’s garden. They are woven throughout an extensive perennial garden that includes foxgloves, herbaceous peonies, iris and pale- peach poppies.

“The tree peonies really like this bed,” she said, gesturing to a wide border that wraps around the south side of the house. “It gets southwest exposure. We brought in a lot of good soil when we moved here. It made a huge difference.”

As Bryden walked through the garden, she stopped to admire each prized specimen, describing its growth habit and how she came to acquire it.

“This is ‘Icarus,’ she said, pointing to a red flower with two rows of ruffled, pointed petals. She added the plant’s full name, ‘Son of Daedalus, First Man to Fly.’ One can see how it got its name: the outer petals spread wide like wings and the inner petals reach upward, as if pointing to the sky. At the center is a crown of bright yellow stamens emanating from a deep red center.

Bryden and Krueger take a daily garden tour. “There’s always something different happening out here,” she said.

“The blooms are so beautiful. It’s like having beautiful animals,” she said. “They give so much pleasure.” (Bryden happens to have a number of beautiful animals, including an Arabian horse, a German Shepherd, an Australian Shepherd, and three goats, a Toggenburg and two French Alpines.)

“But it’s such a short season,” she said ruefully. “Two-and-a-half weeks and they’re done.”

Learned by doing

Not surprisingly, plants as rarified as these take a fair amount of maintenance. Bryden fertilizes them twice in the spring with fish emulsion; in the fall, after a hard frost, she picks off all the dead leaves and wilted branches to discourage disease and pests.

“I deadhead them after the blooms have passed so they can put their energy into growing rather than producing seeds,” Bryden said.

“I’ve learned a lot from family and friends about how to take care of them. I love learning from the people I’ve hung around with and watched in the garden,” she said. “And I learn a lot just by doing it,” she added, explaining that she doesn’t rely much on gardening books. “I was never a good test-taker in school.”

Meanwhile, the ancestral source of Bryden’s beloved tree peonies continues to thrive. William Gratwick died in 1988 at age 85. His daughter, Lee, now in her 80s, still maintains Linwood Gardens, tending 500 tree peonies on the 300-acre farm.

Linwood Gardens is open to the public three weekends a year, during the annual tree peony festival in early June.

“People come from all over the world for the festival,” Bryden said. “It’s always hard to predict how the season is going to develop. You can have a late, hard frost, and that will be the end of it.” She added, “It’s a bit of a crap shoot. But that’s gardening.”

Family and friends gather at Linwood for a weekend each October to clean up the plants for the winter.

“It’s a big job,” said Bryden, who makes the trip as often as she can.

This fall, Bryden is planning to go out to Linwood Gardens to get one more tree peony, called ‘Gauguin.’ An exotic blend of orange, red and pink hues, the flower was named because it reminded the breeder of the artist Gauguin’s palette.

“I keep thinking I’m not going to do anything more. But then I do,” she said. “And that should be it, because I don’t know where I’d put any more tree peonies.”

She paused and glanced out over her perennial beds.

“You never know.”

Mickey Rathbun can be reached at foxglover8@gmail.com




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