As part of a national effort to enhance natural resources and promote environmental sustainability efforts, the federal government recently granted funding to Ann Arbor’s Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum to help maintain North America’s largest collection of heirloom peonies.
U.S Senator Carl Levin (D–Mich.) announced in a July 26 press statement that the Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum are among five Michigan museums that will receive federal grants through the Museums for America program to preserve local establishments.
“Michigan’s Museums are home to many important state and national treasures, and these grants will help share those resources with more visitors,” Levin said in the release. “I am proud these museums were selected out of scores of applicants nationwide, reflecting the great work being performed by these institutions.”
According to the press release, the University will receive $79,658 from the Museums for America grant as well as matching funds provided by the grantee to be used on the “Peony Initiative,” which will provide information on the Internet about the garden’s various peonies.
David Michener, associate curator at Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum, said the money will allow the University to develop a better website to showcase the nature preserves.
“Being able to move a lot of information to the web will help us serve our local constituency as well as make it more available for people coming from afar,” Michener said. “This is to help give us a template to build a much richer website.”
The money provided by the Museums for America grants is only one piece of the peony project, which includes restoration and expansion, among other improvements, that are already several years underway. According to Michener, funding for other parts of the Peony Initiative have come from private foundations.
He added that applying for the grant money involved answering a detailed set of questions regarding how the work would impact the institution and be important for the country. He said that for the peony gardens, the importance comes from the gardens’ more than 270 varieties of historic peonies.
According to Scott Kunst — founder of Ann Arbor’s Old House Gardens, a business that specializes in historic plants — the Peony Garden was donated to Nichols Arboretum in 1922 by W.E Upjohn, founder of the Upjohn Pharmaceutical Company in Kalamazoo, Mich.
“He thought the Arboretum, which was just being developed, ought to have a showcase collection of one of the most important flowers of the age,” Kunst said.
Kunst added he believes the garden has lived up to the original donor’s vision and that the collection is unmatched.
For many, the peony has a unique visual appeal that has made it a popular and culturally significant flower for decades, Kunst explained.
“The peony is a lush, profuse (and) abundant kind of luxurious flower … people really respond strongly to them,” Kunst said. “They were the stars of all the high-end boutiques.”
In addition to its aesthetic appeal, its sturdy nature has made the flower a favorite among collectors and florists.
“It’s sort of like a tree almost, you plant a peony and there is a good chance that it will be there a hundred years later,” Kunst said. “They have been around for so long that everybody remembers them from when they grew up.”
Five Michigan museums — including the Michigan State University Museum, the Detroit Science Center and the Arab-American National Museum — were among 160 nationwide to receive Museums for America grants for various programs.