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Peonies, History and Traditon

By Colleen


Garden at Hildene


It’s said that every American author has a responsibility to pen something concerning the Civil War.  So, on this 150th anniversary year of the start of the War Between the States, here’s my contribution. But this column isn’t about war and death, or brother versus brother, or the rending of a nation.  It’s about peonies.

Let me explain:

As we know from our school days, President Abraham Lincoln, having successfully led our nation through its greatest trial, did not live to see the aftermath.  And he bore great sorrow, including the death of two of his sons in childhood. Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln did, however, see their eldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln, mature into manhood. Robert attended Harvard Law School, served in the Civil War, and in later Republican administrations was Ambassador to Britain and Secretary of War. As Chairman of the Pullman Railroad Company he became wealthy and lived much of his life in Chicago. His summer home, however, a Gilded Age estate of 412 acres, was a gracious abode known as Hildene, in Manchester Center, VT. The Georgian Revival edifice, built in 1905, became home to Lincoln descendents until 1975. Today Hildene is a museum, whose stated mission is to “Advance the Lincoln legacy through education, commitment to community and active stewardship of the family’s home and land.”

It’s a short 3 ½ hour trip from Fairfield County, Connecticut, to Manchester, Vermont.  Touring Hildene, with its antiques, tradition, and Civil War artifacts is enthralling. But for me, one of the best parts is the gardens. They boast many splendors; among them, kitchen, cutting, propagation and butterfly plots, as well as a breathtaking view from the promontory overlooking the valley below

The highlight is a spectacular French parterre formal garden, designed by Robert Todd Lincoln’s daughter, Jessie in 1907, as a gift to her mother. The pattern is that of a stained glass window; the privet edges represent the leading, the flowers symbolize the glass. As a young woman, Jessie had seen such windows in the cathedrals of Europe, and these same travels introduced her to the French parterre design.

There are many flowers at the Lincoln ancestral home. But it is the fragrant flurry of peony bloom in May and June that entrance both visitors and Hildene’s Master Gardener, Cindy Lewis. The hundreds of peonies date from the earliest days of the estate, and Cindy has undertaken research to uncover their heritage both so that they might be bred for future generations to enjoy, and also to ascertain if unknown varieties might be among the many cultivars.

The search has been a true horticultural whodunit. With the assistance of dedicated volunteers and Master Gardener interns, Cindy has directed the sorting of blossoms, cataloguing of specimens, creating of files, and collecting of seed, and planting-out of selected types.  She’s spent many a long winter day poring over old family records and publications such as a 1923 issue of The American Peony Society Manual. Progress has been made, and she anticipates that eventually more than twenty different varieties of peonies will be identified, each with its own cultivar file. In the meantime, the American Peony Society has registered a previously unknown cultivar, named the Jesse Lincoln. More are sure to follow.

As has been proven at Hildene, peonies are century plants; they will outlive most of us if planted correctly and sited well. Give them rich soil, average moisture, lots of sun, a bit of support when needed, and they will reward their handler with generations of fragrant bounty. Pluck them by the armloads and enjoy.

Few gardeners will ever tend as spectacular a peony garden as that at Hildene. But we can dream, can’t we? Visit Hildene ( and get reacquainted not only with a measure of the Civil War heritage which we all share, but also with that regent of spring flowers, that symbol of beauty, peace and longevity, the peony.

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