Back in 1989, Leo Fernig (1915-1999) wrote an article in the APS Bulletin wherein he announced the forming of SPIN (Species Peonies International Network) a new group of people interested in species peonies. SPIN was successful for many years but finally disappeared. Given the renewed interest in and popularity of peonies, we thought it was a good time to start this group again. If you are interested in species peonies and you agree with what is said in the text below then you are most welcome to join the SPIN group which has been created on this site again.
RESTORING THE PEONY SPECIES
By Leo Fernig, Bonne, France
Originally published in: APS Bulletin, nr 270, June 1989, pp. 12-15.
This is a progress report from a group of gardeners who devote part of their energies to the peony species. In late 1986, the APS bulletin published an article by Trevor Nottle, the Australian garden authority, in which he described the progressive destruction of the habitat of wild peonies, especially in the Mediterranean region, and called for some remedial action. In following this up, a number of us have formed a network, using the acronym SPIN (Species Peonies International Network) to enable us to cooperate in this particular field. We now have around 30 members scattered across a dozen countries of Western Europe, North America, and Oceania, about the right size for the type of voluntary effort we represent.
The amateur gardener may have various reasons for growing the wild forms of peony. They can be the basis for producing new hybrids, for example, in regions where the early flowering season of the species would be an advantage because of hot, dry summers. Then again, the species more than justify a place in the garden: they extend the peony flowering season and their single blooms have a fresh beauty that the double or full hybrids never approach. Indeed, it is amusing to note the tendency among the most successful hybridists to select and develop the simpler forms of their crosses re-inventing the wheel, as it were, in the plant kingdom.
But a still more powerful motive for cultivating wild peonies is the ecological one evoked by Trevor Nottle. We are slowly becoming aware of the rapid degradation of our natural environment, with many species of plants and animals disappearing every year. While the issue is one that confronts governments and international organizations, individuals too can play a part in working for solutions. Many of us believe that a gardener has a duty to be concerned about conserving the plants that give her or him so much pleasure; with the peonies, this means the wild stock from which all our garden cultivars are derived.
The hard facts of plant extinction are difficult to document. We do know that the Balearic peony, Paeonia cambessedesii, is on the endangered list; it has completely disappeared on Menorca and is extremely rare on the other island, Majorca, where a combination of development for tourism and grazing by goats appears to have driven the plant to a few isolated stands. Another site, the Monte Generoso in Switzerland, housed P. officinalis and was described as a blaze of pink flowers in May by writers of the 1920’s; I’m told that you couldn’t find a single plant there now, even though it is supposed to be protected in Switzerland. However, it’s more by inference than direct measurement that we believe the peony species to be at risk. In the wild they are attractive flowers to be dug up or plucked, they multiply slowly and their mountain habitats are increasingly being used for tourism.
WHAT ARE THE PEONY SPECIES?
For a good answer, readers need only to refer back to the article by Kendall W. Gambrill, “King of Flowers, Queen of Herbs: the Peony” which was reprinted in the December 1988 issue of the APS Bulletin. Mr. Gambrill gives a clear and readable account of the main species and their garden requirements, on the whole following the groups and names established in 1946 by F. C. Stern in his classic “Study of the Genus Paeonia”.
One of the members of our Network, Ray Cooper, who lives near Manchester in England, has made an extensive survey of what botanists have written about the peony species since Stern’s time. He carried out this piece of work as a contribution to the purposes we share in common: in trying to preserve the species, we obviously have to start by knowing what plants we’re talking about. Some of the broad conclusions of the survey can be briefly given. A few new species have been identified and described: one from Tibet, named P. sterniana in honor of F. C. Stern, two in Greece, P. parnassica and P. hellenica, and in Turkey, P. turcica. The botanists who issued the Flora Europea in the 1960’s have differed from Stern by treating the two old Western European peonies, P. mascula and P. officinalis, (roughly, the southern, Mediterranean type and the northerly Alpine one) as complex names, covering a number of subspecies hitherto regarded as species. I doubt whether gardeners will be much affected by such decisions, but it is needful to keep terminology in line, if only to avoid confusion over a period of time. And another conclusion one gets from the Cooper survey is that Soviet and Chinese botanists have been devoting a lot of attention to the many peony species native to their countries. The former in particular differ considerably from Western scientists in their definition of “species”, so that we find a Georgian botanist identifying 13 species in the Caucasus, against the four or five enumerated by Stern. The big issue, I feel, is whether natural hybrids are to be counted or not for many of the peony species are notoriously promiscuous!
As our Network has taken shape, we’ve been able to top the experience of quite a range of people, many being skilled gardeners who have been hunting for the species for years. It does appear that the state of affairs could do with clearing up. A number of nurseries send out plants labeled wrongly as species, or use incorrect names; selected strains, too, have evolved over the years from popular species like P. arietina and P. peregrina, with trade names that add to the confusion. This observation is not intended as criticism of our nurserymen. The point is that species represent too small a part of their stock to justify more detailed attention. On the other hand, the record of botanic gardens isn’t much better. I know at least four, all famous, where the peony collection is only about 50% correct and/or authentic. Again, gardens are chronically short of staff, with so many demands made on them, that one genus, usually held in a single large bed, cannot receive preferential treatment. Despite these problems, the members of our Network, acting individually, have managed to find and grow a wide range of the species, at times from wild-collected plants or seed. During the past two years, as a group, we’ve been able to obtain a fair amount of seed from the wild, and one of our members, K. Sahin, a Dutch horticulturist with a private love of peonies, has been most helpful in this respect. Another member, Gian Lupo Osti (whom readers will recognize from articles he contributes to the Bulletin), travels and mountaineers a good deal, and has collected seed from peony species he has found around the Mediterranean. So it is that a small group can, by pooling its resources, make quite a bit of progress in tracing and obtaining wild material.
PROPAGATION AND RECORDING
A great deal is already known and written about raising peonies from seed, as innumerable articles in the bulletin show, and even though the writers are mostly concerned with raising hybrids, much the same rules can be applied to the species. Freshness of seed seems to be very important; stratification; patience and care with the seedlings, which should not be disturbed too soon. Once well started, the species peony is a pretty hardy subject, although the received wisdom is that some of the Mediterranean species (P. clusii from Crete, for instance) are tender in damp and very cold climates. However, I believe we need to try out these plants in a wide range of situations before coming to conclusions about their hardiness.
At a fairly early stage of the Network, Will McLewin, another English gardener and a mountaineer, circulated a paper on authenticity, in which he urged that the group should concentrate on growing the species from wild material. He gave a simple code for plants and seed: 4 being the ideal, collected directly from the wild, 3 being seed from a 4-level plant in a garden, but obtained by hand pollination or “strong isolation.” The lower numbers 2, 1 or zero, would, of course, be attached to plants or seed or doubtful validity. With this policy, our Network thus focuses on the 4/4 and 4/3 plants at least, treats these as the main object of our collaboration and we have now begun to set up the SPIN Pedigree Book. This rather pretentious name goes to a record book which I’m maintaining, to set out the mature, authentic plants that our members grow and from which, in due course, they will be able to propagate either by division or by seed. For each submission, we will have: a sequential number; species name; growers’ surname; date of registration; then follows an open-ended abstract to say where and when and by whom the plant was obtained, along with its characteristics. We hope to accumulate here the data on the requirements, hardiness, and so on, of a particular species. The abstract could also, of course, record the names of other gardeners who have obtained material from the first grower.
EXPANDING CULTIVATION AND AVAILABILITY
To know what the peony species are; locate them in the wild; and from this material grow and record plants; these are the first steps on the way to conservation. And I fear we shall be some years yet with the first steps. Authentic plants from the Caucasus, Soviet Asia and China must remain high on the list of priorities, and, of course, that elusive P. sterniana from Tibet, named in 1959, and now all but lost to cultivation. But sooner or later, the Network should have a reasonable Pedigree List, and members will have plants from which to hand-pollinate and make divisions. Maybe we will specialize, each growing clumps of those that do best with us, trying out single specimens of the others.
The point then will be to disseminate the species as widely as possible, maybe restore some of the natural stations. Swapping plants with neighbors and friends is the normal commerce of gardeners; but we should, too, interest the nurserymen and work with botanic gardens to improve authenticity. And for some members, there may be an opportunity to move their surplus material into commercial channels. The essential goal then will be to maintain records, so that when someone grows a P. peregrina, it is a P. peregrina.