Peonies named after Great Ladies

How would you feel having a plant named after you?

Like many breeders and adventurers that have had their creations and discoveries named after them, it must be quite an experience to have something out there with your name on it.

Unlike human generations that can die off after a century or less, plants carry on for hundreds of years.

And there, a piece of you lives on. Forever memorialised in that name.

Sarah Bernhardt is one Great Lady that has such a privilege.

But who was she and what was she famous for?

Sarah Bernhardt became famous during an idyllic period of time in France before WW1 called the Belle Epoque. During the 19th century, France became more cosmopolitan due to the border collapsing between social groups and gender. It was an era all about freedom and Sarah personified this time of liberation, paving the way for actresses to come.

She was a woman on a liberation mission with a daring preference for male roles and was not intimidated by men. When Oscar Wilde asked her if ‘she would mind his smoking’, she answered: “I don’t care if you burn”.

As a model, writer, mother, businesswoman, mistress, international idol she formed her own travel company and travelled extensively. All quite revolutionary at the time for a woman.

Known as “Divine Sarah” she starred in some of the earliest films produced, introducing the world to the splendour of theatre. She not only made art, she was art. If you've ever had an overly dramatic emotional outburst in your life (no judgement) you may have been accused of "doing a Sarah Bernhardt". This stands as a tribute to Sarah's remarkable talent for tragic drama on and off stage.

The French breeder Monsieur Lemoine named his peony after Sarah Bernhardt in 1906 and it became the most well-known peony in the world because of Sarah’s dramatic persona – she had been known to, at times, sleep in a coffin as she felt it helped her have more understanding in the tragic roles she played.

I wonder what Sarah thought about having her name on these beauties.

Perhaps her jumping off a parapet while performing in La Toscana and injuring her knee was what moved Lemoine to name the peony after her.

Who knows?

Such beauty. Such tragedy.

One thing we know for sure is that, just like the icon herself, this outstanding peony is one of the most popular blooms around with its sweetly scented, sugar pink, fully double blooms and striking raspberry flashes on the guard petals and makes a great cut flower. A mid-late season bloomer (late May/June in the UK) it holds the RHS AGM (Award of Garden Merit). A star in the garden when it comes to reliability.

And if you don't like pink you could go for the Red Sarah Bernhardt - a mid-season bloomer with lightly fragrant, large, double, cerise-red blooms.

Also a winner!

Another peony named after a great lady is Alice Harding. There is a tree peony and a herbaceous peony with her name on them. The tree type sports huge, fragrant, semi-double lemon yellow blooms with tightly packed petals while the herbaceous type has luscious double blooms with white/pale pink flowers and pink tinged guard petals.

Alice Harding was a gardener and writer of the early 20th century that lived on Burnley Farm in Plainfield, New Jersey where she collected, tested, and evaluated the finest new peony varieties. While in France in 1922, she offered a prize to the Société Nationale d'Horticulture de France for the best new French seedling. Emile Lemoine won and named his seedling in Mrs. Harding's honour.

And peonies weren't the only flowers that were named after her. There is also a rose, an iris and two French hybrid lilacs out there bearing her name.

A Great Lady indeed.

Do you have either of these lovelies in your garden right now?

Let us know!

 

Sarah

Peonies in Europe – a brief history

Found yourself pondering over how the beloved peony found its way over to our neck of the woods? This is a subject I find endlessly fascinating. So much so, that in my efforts to condense things down into a brief history of peonies in Europe it all became more of a not-so-brief history of nearly everything (to semi-quote Bill Bryson). It became increasingly challenging to whittle it all down to what could be considered the most “important” bits, but here we are. My hope is that you will find some slightly lesser known facts to enrich your view of this historically diverse plant.

There are nearly 40 types of peonies that occur naturally in Central and Southern Europe, Caucasia, Asia and North America. The fragrant Chinese common peony (P.lactiflora) is a herbaceous perrenial originally used medicinally in China but by the seventh century they became popular as an ornamental plant and were placed under imperial protection. The emperor’s gardeners began creating more showy flowers which inspired his artists to capture them on screen paintings, tapestries, silk and porcelain.

By the eighth century peonies found their way to Japan as the Chinese traded the very valuable roots of these plants for goods.  It is distinguished from the common peony (P. officinalis) by its leaves, which have finely jagged edges, and its fruits (follicles), which are smooth.

Several varieties of the European common peony (P.officinalis) can be found occurring naturally in Europe and were mostly used medicinally in the 1400s. Introduced to Britain before 1548, this herbaceous double crimson peony became possibly the best known common peony in gardens, often found surviving on their own on old/abandoned estates.

In 1789 the botanist Sir Joseph Banks had a tree peony (P.suffruticosa) brought to England by the British East India Company which was planted in Kew Gardens.  European varieties known before the year 1800 come from P.officinalis and many of these came from France. Cultivation of herbaceous and tree peonies from the Far East began during the 1800s after discoveries were made by explorers.

In the early 1800s P.lactiflora was brought to France from China and introduced into European gardens.  By the second half of the 1800s new hybrids were being developed by breeders such as Calot, Lemoine, Crousse and Dessert, many of which are still seen today. During this time peonies captured the imagination of many European Impressionists such as Gauguin, Manet, Monet, Delacroix, Renoir, Whistler and Fantin-Latour who included peonies in their paintings. Peonies also featured in Art Nouveau posters such as ones by Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

By the early 1900s different species were cross-fertilized bringing about the first herbaceous and tree hybrids. The first large double yellow tree peonies were created in France by Louis Henry, Maxim Cornù and Lemoine. These were hybrids of P. suffruticosa (cultivated for centuries in China and Japan) and P.lutea (a yellow-flower species brought to Europe from China by Abbé Delavay in the late 1800s) and had to be supported due to the weak stem and large flower combination.

However, in the 1950’s an American breeder of herbaceous peonies, Professor Saunders, rectified this by cross-fertilizing to increase the strength of the stem and creating a simpler flower - semi-double and double. Following on from Saunder’s work, William Gratwick and Nassos Daphnis made notable progress resulting in some of the most remarkable Lutea hybrids available. It was then in 1948 that Dr. Toichi Itoh from Japan cross-bred the herbaceous species (P.lactiflora) with the tree species (P.lutea), producing the “Intersectional”/”Itoh” hybrid we see today.

Found in so many different regions around the world, it's no surprise then that peonies suit so many different types of gardens. This gives us helpful insight as to where the best places are to plant peonies in your garden. We will be discussing that in a future post but, for now, this is it!