Few people have influenced the development of a group of flowering plants as much as Professor Arthur Saunders. Born in 1869, Saunders made a unique contribution to the development of peonies as garden plants. He trained as a chemist and received his Doctorate from Johns Hopkins University. In 1900 he became Professor of Chemistry at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, and continued in this profession until he retired in 1939. A passionate gardener, he worked with peonies until his death in 1953.1

A.P. Saunders
(Photo from: APS Bulletin March 1930)

The totally revamped website of the American Peony Society features a members-only section of which access to all historical Bulletins is but one of the many benefits. The article below is taken from one of these (June 1926), it is written by Professor Saunders and describes his work with hybridizing peonies.

The peony species classification has changed several times since the article was written, therefore in between brackets the current species name has been added every first time an older synonym is mentioned by Saunders.

The article doesn’t mention any named cultivars by Saunders, they were only registered the following years. At the end of the article some recent instagram posts are shown, featuring some of his introductions. There is also a website dedicated to all peonies Saunders has introduced, showing a great many of them. For this just go to www.saunderspeonies.com

Some new hybrid peonies.2

It is now about ten years since I began to work on the production of hybrids between different species of peonies. I suppose it is the experience of most of those who have undertaken such an adventure that they hopefully attempt in the beginning to make those crosses which they would like to make, and come resignedly later to making those they can. So it was with me at any rate I began by attempting crosses between the Chinese peonies [Paeonia lactiflora, ed.] and tree peonies, and between Chinese peonies and Paeonia lutea [now considered Paeonia delavayi ssp delavayi, ed.]. All these proved complete failures, and I was convinced as time went on that there was very little prospect of ever having any success along those lines. At the very best, crosses between different species give but a small percentage of success. One must take failure and disappointment as being the order of the day, and regard a successful cross as a gift of the gods. No one should undertake such work unless he feels within himself an unfathomable well of patience, and a strong wall of persistence against which he may put his back when discouragement threatens to get the better of him. My records are mostly a list of failures; and while these may have a scientific value for the botanist they can have very little interest for the practical plant grower, and I shall therefore pass briefly over the countless crosses that led to nothing and shall restrict myself mainly to the few lines of work that were productive and from which I have now some plants that I think will prove of permanent value. Before going further I shall describe briefly the various species which I have used either as pollen parents or seed parents.

In the group of shrubby species I have in the first place a large collection of tree peonies. I have also a number of plants of Paeonia lutea, most of these being seedlings which I have raised myself. During the last couple of years I have also had some plants of P. delavayi which I obtained from Vilmorin and Company of Paris. In the herbaceous group I have a large collection of named varieties of Chinese peonies, as well as many seedlings of the same race. I have six or eight of the named varieties of Paeonia officinalis as well as a few seedlings of the same strain. A plant which I have used very largely is the beautiful variety known as Otto Froebel. My original plant of this variety came from Barr and Sons, of London. When I was in England in 1923 I saw at the Chelsea Show a great many blooms of a plant that is very popular in England under the name Paeonia lobata [=Paeonia peregrina, ed.]. The resemblance between lobata and my Otto Froebel is so close that I am sure they are related forms. Just exactly what lobata is, seems to be still open to some doubt. It is considered by some botanists to be a variety of officinalis, and the character of the foliage certainly supports this view; it has, I understand, been referred by others to the species peregrina. I presume that its exact relationships cannot at present be definitely settled. The variety Otto Froebel has fairly large single blooms of a vivid clear rose color; a color that is not found in the Chinese peonies. I have raised seedlings of Otto Froebel, self-fertilized, and they run fairly close to the characters of the parent, varying a little in depth of color and in texture of petals.

I have made a very great many crosses using pollen from a species which I believe to be P. macrophylla [Paeonia daurica ssp macrophylla, ed.]. There seems to be some confusion between this and the species wittmanniana [P. daurica ssp wittmanniana, ed.]; and it is difficult from the original descriptions of the two to be quite sure to which of them a given plant should be referred. I have obtained my stock of both of these plants from C. G. Van Tubergen in Haarlem, Holland. If I am right about these species, P. macrophylla is what one would expect from its name, a species with large and coarse foliage. The leaflets are broader and heavier than in any other peony that I know. The flowers are fairly large and, in spite of all statements to the contrary in dealers’ catalogues, are white, and not yellow.

It is a misfortune that so many of our botanical descriptions are made not from living plants but from dried specimens; for this plant has a characteristic which I believe makes it very easily identified, and that is the odor of the leaves. They give off, especially in the sunlight, a peculiar rather bitter aroma, often noticeable eight or ten feet away. The plant ought therefore to be easily recognizable even in the dark; but of course the dried leaves would have lost the odor, and no mention of any such peculiarity is made in the original description. The plant which I consider to be the true wittmanniana is a yellow-flowered species. Its foliage is entirely different from that of macrophylla, being thinner in texture, lighter in color, and altogether more delicate; besides which it is, so far as I have observed, quite free from the odor of macrophylla. The yellow color of the flowers of wittmanniana is by no means so deep as it is in P. lutea. The latter has blooms of a bright buttercup yellow, whereas those of wittmanniana are pale yellow; but they are not white, nor creamy white, nor yellowish white; they are a clear and distinct light yellow. I make this point because the original descriptions are ambiguous in the matter of color. Thus, the original description of macrophylla gives the flowers as “white, scarcely yellowish,” while that of wittmanniana gives its flowers as “white, or very pale yellowish, or greenish.” That is just the sort of thing that would happen where one was making up a description from dried blooms, and it leads to the conclusion that the color of the flowers could not be used to distinguish the two from each other. Now, I must admit that I am not quite sure about the constancy of color in wittmanniana, for I have not raised any seedlings from it; but I do know about it in macrophylla, because I have a considerable number of plants of it and have grown a batch of seedlings, all of which have shown a complete uniformity in this respect.

There is another yellow-flowered herbaceous peony, bearing the somewhat cumbrous name of P. mlokosewitschi [P. daurica ssp mlokosewitschii, ed.]. The flowers in this species are similar in color to those of wittmanniana. But the form of the flower is quite different, the petals in mlokosewitschi being more rounded, and very much incurved. The foliage is even more distinct. The stems are red, the leaflets very much rounded, and of a peculiar glaucous green. Of this plant I have a considerable stock, including a number of seedlings which have always so far shown a complete constancy of characters. I consider this species a very beautiful garden plant, and one which deserves to be far more widely grown than it is at present.

There is another species which I have used to a certain extent, but which I have not yet identified to my satisfaction. I bought it from one of our large dealers as P. lobata. It is very evidently not that plant, and I suspect that it may be either corallina [P. mascula ssp mascula, ed.] or one of the forms of P. arietina.

Other species which I have used include the single form of P. tenuifolia, also P. microcarpa [P. officinalis ssp. microcarpa, ed.], P. veitchi, P. woodwardi [P. anomala, ed.], and several others ; but crosses on these are of very recent date, and it is too soon to say anything about them.

Coming now to the practical results, I may repeat here what I have already indicated before, that in general the chances of successful crossing between peony species are very small. On the other hand there are certain species between which there is a more or less complete compatibility, as the botanist calls it.

Thus, I am pretty well satisfied that I have never had any successes in crossing the various forms of shrubby peonies with any of the herbaceous species. It might seem an easy matter to be quite positive about the success or failure of a given cross, but it is not so easy as it looks. Of course if a cross is made and no seed is obtained it is plain enough that the cross has failed. But if the seed pod enlarges and in the autumn yields seed, it is by no means certain that the cross has been a success. For one must remember that the anthers of the peony very often burst before the bloom has opened, and consequently there is always a danger that a bloom may have fertilized itself, even though the petals and all the stamens may have been removed while the flower was still in bud. When such fertilization has occurred it may be quite impossible to detect pollen grains on the stigma, and so one may apply foreign pollen to such a bloom and obtain fertile seed in the autumn when nothing whatever has taken place except self-fertilization. When such an uncertainty arises it takes years before any positive conclusions regarding it can be reached ; for when such seed is planted one must wait at least four or five years to see bloom on the resulting plants, and even if these plants and their flowers show the characters of the original female parent the case for self-fertilization is still not established beyond doubt because, as I shall later show, in some cases undoubted crosses between peony species have given plants possessing almost completely the characters of one parent to the exclusion of the other. The only final and incontrovertible proof that our original bloom had fertilized itself would be by raising a batch of seedlings of the second generation ; then if these showed no tendency to sport into the original male line one could indeed be sure that the case was one of self-fertilization. But this means about ten years of waiting.

And there is another difficulty with peony crosses. This arises from the fact that a cross will show every sign of having been successful when as a matter of fact no real seed has been formed. The pods swell up, and are evidently filled with seeds ; in due time the pods open, and the seed has every appearance of being normal and healthy ; and yet such seed when pressed firmly between the fingers will burst and be found to consist of nothing but a glossy skin without any contents whatever. P. lutea and P. tenuifolia are particularly clever in producing seed of this kind.

These things I mention in order that it may be realized that crosses which are apparently successful may be in fact complete failures, while in other cases which to judge from the progeny might appear to have been failures, may really have been successful. However, a true cross usually gives progeny sufficiently different both from the male and female parent to be easily recognized as hybrid in character; and I have generally assumed that wherever I found an alleged cross giving a group of plants in the first generation which showed entirely the character of the female parent, I had a case of self-fertilization and not a successful cross. In my earlier years of experimentation I had a good many apparent successes in crossing tree peonies and P. lutea on Chinese peonies. All of these plants have now come to the blooming age, and never in any case has one of them shown the slightest indication of either tree peony blood or P. lutea blood. Most of these plants have been thrown away without waiting to raise seedlings of a second generation on the remote chance that the original cross was successful. It may further be said that in almost all cases true hybrids are sterile. Hence when an apparently successful cross gives seedlings which have fully the character of the female parent and are in addition strong seed-setters, there is very good ground for the assumption that they are not true crosses at all.

The largest group of my hybrids were made by using the pollen of P. macrophylla on Chinese analogous to that which was used by Lemoine in the production of his wittmanniana hybrids Mai Fleuri, Avant Garde, etc. M. Lemoine reports regarding his crosses that he has never had any results from using the pollen of Chinese peonies on blooms of wittmanniana, but that his named varieties all came from crosses made in the opposite direction, using pollen of wittmanniana on blooms of Chinese peonies. I have had somewhat the same experience with my hybrids between macrophylla and sinensis [P. lactiflora, ed.]. The cross takes fairly well when macrophylla pollen is used on Chinese peonies, but the reverse cross very rarely gives anything at all. I have, I think, from many crosses of the latter sort only two or three plants, none of which are yet of blooming age.

A peculiarity of the crosses made with macrophylla pollen on sinensis blooms is that although the seed is nurtured and matured on a Chinese peony, the blooms of the progeny almost always follow the pattern of the male parent. The characters that govern the form of the flower are evidently highly dominant in macrophylla. The color shows a little greater variation, for although the majority of the hybrids are white-flowered, some of them go into shades of pink. The white-flowered sorts are near enough to the species macrophylla so that most of them would not strike a casual observer as possessing any foreign blood.

It is a different matter with the foliage. Some of the hybrid plants have the green stems and broad light green leaves of macrophylla, while at the other end of the scale there are plants with small deep purple red leaves, shining as if they were varnished, and in between are all sorts of intermediate forms, some few with bronzy purple foliage in which each leaflet has a green tip. Those with purple or red leaves are not so vigorous in growth as arc the green ones, and few of them have yet bloomed. But as I write many are standing in full bud awaiting a few days of warmth to come into bloom.

Whether anything of value will come out of this group of hybrids it is too soon to say. The best of the white-flowered kinds are very much better plants than the species macrophylla, with larger flowers, running up to nearly eight inches in diameter. I imagine they may be something like Lemoine’s hybrid Messagere. That plant I do not possess and so have had no means of comparing it with my own seedlings.

The season of bloom for these hybrids is from one to two weeks earlier than the earliest Chinese peonies.

The Lemoine wittmanniana hybrids, according to the statement of M. Lemoine himself, are sterile; and my own experience confirms that; for I have never been able to get any results from them, either as pollen parents or seed parents. The same holds true for most of my macrophylla hybrids, although here and there I occasionally find one seed on a plant. From the occasional seeds thus gathered in 1924 I have a couple of germinations this spring, showing at least that the seeds have vitality.

There is a tendency in this group of hybrids to produce flowers of what I might call, for lack of a better name, a cactus type. They are characterized by narrow, somewhat twisted petals. I do not think that they represent a desirable novelty among peonies, but they are at least curious. Among all the progeny of this cross which had bloomed up to last year there had been nothing but single flowered sorts, good, bad and indifferent. But last May in a small group of seedlings that came from a cross of macrophylla on James Kelway, there were three which were semi-double, one of them almost fully double, and looking a good deal like a delicate little camellia. These little flowers are very attractive and were quite a surprise, coming at that season, about a week earlier than the earliest Chinese sorts.

Another cross that has given some good plants was made by using the pollen of macrophylla on varieties of P. officinalis. These plants have a somewhat intermediate character, but resemble officinalis rather than macrophylla. The hybrids on officinalis rubra plena are mostly crimson singles. They also are usually sterile, but one plant last year gave thirty seeds, from which some interesting progeny may be looked for. I have also a few crosses of macrophylla on Otto Froebel. One of these bloomed for the first time last year. It was in general appearance not unlike the Lemoine hybrid Avant Garde, but was a week earlier in season.

My main purpose in all this work of cross fertilization has been to strike out if possible into new lines that would produce early flowering types in greater variety and beauty than we have heretofore had. It is still much too soon to pronounce judgment on these plants ; many of them bloomed for the first time last year, and very many more have not yet bloomed at all. But the results up to the present have shown at least a few beautiful new forms, and there is I think a promise that some of these may be of permanent value for our gardens.

I now come to the crosses which have been made or at tempted, using the species mlokosewitschi. This yellow flowered plant seemed to offer interesting possibilities if it could be crossed on Chinese or other peonies. I have attempted during the past few years many such crosses, both on named varieties of Chinese peonies, and on a good many of the species in my garden as well as most of the officinalis varieties I possess. My belief is that up to the present time I have never succeeded in effecting a cross either with pollen from P. mlokosewitschi, or by using pollen of other varieties upon that species. It is true I have a good many seeds that have been produced by the blooms so worked over, but in every case where seed has been set I have a very definite suspicion that it was merely by self-fertilization. I have a few young plants that have come up from such seed, and in every case they show the characters of the female parent. The only ones that have come to the blooming age are some in which pollen of P. mlokosewitschi was used on Chinese peonies. I have had perhaps a dozen of such plants, and all of them have been, as far as I could see, absolutely sinensis in character. The inducement in making this cross lies in the possibility of producing an early flowering race of yellow peonies. That is a possibility to stir the heart of any peony hybridist. I still keep hoping that I may find some species or variety which will yield true crosses with mlokosewitschi. It would be strange if this species should prove incompatible with all other peonies, and it may be that within a few years I shall be able to report success in this direction. This is to my mind the most interesting of the lines that I have touched upon, and it is tantalizing that it seems to be the one which most obstinately refuses to give any results.

Of course crosses of Chinese peonies on P. lutea would probably produce a wonderful race of yellow flowered peonies. But successful crosses between herbaceous and shrubby plants in the same genus are rare, and I was never very hopeful of success in using P. Lutea with Chinese peonies. In any case, my friend Mr. Winthrop Thurlow has been working on this cross for a number of years, and I am sure that his chances of success with it would be at least as good as mine, if not better. I think for the future that I shall leave to him the task of producing hybrids between lutea and sinensis, while I endeavor to find among the many peony species some that will yield hybrids with the beautiful P. mlokosewitschi. The extremes to which a hybridist will go to obtain the results he wants are illustrated by a case recently reported to me in which an experimenter in the hope of producing yellow peonies used pollen of the yellow primrose on Chinese peonies. I have not heard that he had any success.

We come now to a group of hybrids which seem to promise better practical results than any other. These are the hybrids between sinensis and officinalis. I was able to stage a small exhibit of these at the peony show in Philadelphia last year, but that exhibit did not do anything like justice to the plants as they developed later in the garden. I gladly pay tribute here to my friend Mr. Lyman D. Glasscock of Joliet, Ill., who I understand staged a bloom of similar parentage at the peony show in Des Moines a year earlier. I am sorry that I was not at that exhibition in order to see the first results of his cross-fertilization between these two groups on which he also has been working for some years past.

A curious fact regarding these hybrids is that they carry a great deal of the officinalis character regardless of the direction in which the cross is made. I have four plants, the results of a cross of a single officinalis variety on the single white albiflora [P. lactiflora, ed.] the Bride. These plants are worth describing. Their blooms are all of a most brilliant crimson color, approximately that of officinalis rubra plena, though in some a shade darker in tone. They are very large, running up to seven inches in diameter, and look like enormous single officinalis blooms. The foliage is also very large, and of the character of officinalis. But stature and habit show the influence of the Chinese blood. The plants do not have the dwarf, sprawling habit of the officinalis varieties, but are tall, erect, and up-standing. The blooms are unusually durable for single flowers. These plants were divided last autumn for the first time, and the root growth seemed to be intermediate between that of officinalis and sinensis. It may therefore turn out that the plants will divide better than the officinalis varieties usually do. If it should be so, and if the plants maintain the quality they have so far shown they should be welcome additions to the meagre list of really fine early flowering peonies. I have several other groups of similar parentage already at or near the blooming age, and some of them have already shown good promise. Crosses made with sinensis pollen on officinalis rubra plena show similar characteristics, but have a tendency towards the production of double flowered hybrids, one of which among the few that have so far bloomed is of a very brilliant scarlet crimson, and may be a good plant. I do not like to say too much about these plants. It seems like boasting about one’s children before they are yet in their teens. It will be some years before they will have established their character to such an extent that one can feel confident about them.

Another group that shows promise has resulted from crosses made between Otto Froebel and Chinese varieties. These, like the above, are all in the season of officinalis, lapping over into the time of the earliest Chinese peonies. The blooms that have appeared on these crosses so far are either of a bright clear rose color, like Otto Froebel itself, or of a lighter rose pink. Two or three of them seem to me to have great beauty. Here too most of the characteristics of the Chinese parent are as the botanists say, recessive, the dominant characters being those of Otto Froebel both in foliage and habit.

I have a number of other crosses made between species mentioned at the beginning of this article, but they are of more recent date, and it will be some years before anything can be said as to results. I made some hybrids last spring between P. lutea and P. delavayi. This is a cross that takes readily; so readily in fact that it has led me to suspect that delavayi may itself be only a form of lutea. As delavayi is but little known, I may say a word about it. It is of course shrubby; or rather in this climate bears the intermediate character which P. lutea itself has. In our severe winters these plants usually kill back to the ground every year, and the new growth is formed from the crown or from the base of the old branches. Both of them bloom very well, however, and they do not seem to suffer very much from their severe winter-killing. The foliage of P. delavayi has almost exactly the same fern-like character as that of P. lutea. The blooms of lutea are uniformly bright yellow. Those of delavayi which I saw at Vilmorin’s were a sort of mahogany brown, but in form like those of lutea. My plants of delavayi, which came from Vilmorin were I understand seedlings. They have blooms the petals of which are mahogany brown at the base, fading to yellow at the edges. The plant is very handsome in foliage but unsatisfactory in flower, the blooms being smaller and duller than those of lutea, while they share with that species the modest habit of hiding themselves among the foliage. I am not very sanguine of obtaining anything of value from this cross, but in this case as in most others of work along such lines, one’s expectations are likely to be disappointed, and where success is least expected something good may turn up in the end.

Quite different from any of the groups of hybrids discussed above are those which have been derived by crossing Chinese peonies on the doubtful species which I have mentioned above as being perhaps P. corallina or possibly arietina. This is an easy cross to make and one which gives in the first generation progeny which shows an extreme variability. The foliage is usually like neither parent, and no two seedlings resemble each other. One would think that plants showing such strong variation would be likely to produce now and then varieties of distinct desirability ; but unfortunately when these hybrids come into bloom all one’s hopes are blasted. The flowers are large but in almost every case of a very ugly purple magenta color. Some are agreeable in odor but none so far seem to me tolerable in color, and I have no thought that any of them will be worth propagating. They are curiosities and nothing more. I may mention that they have always been sterile; which, considering their character is perhaps not a misfortune.

I feel that in presenting an account of this work at the present time I am making only what could be called an ad interim report. I should not have undertaken to give any account at all of my results thus far were it not that the exhibit which I staged in Philadelphia seemed to interest a good many peony growers who saw those blooms, and among them Mr. Christman, who has urged me to say something in the Bulletin regarding the progress of the work. It is also perhaps not a bad idea in the interest of such work itself to take stock at the end of ten years, if only to become clearer in one’s own mind as to the lines along which further experiments should be made.

At the time of writing the above article Professor Saunders had only been hybridizing for about a decade. He was to continue for quite some time and his introductions are still very popular as can be seen from the following posts on Instagram.

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  1. M. Page. “The Gardener’s Peony.” Timber Press: Portland (USA), 2005, p. 226.[]
  2. A.P. Saunders, “Some new hybrid peonies.” In: American Peony Society Bulletin, nr 27, June 1926, pp. 2-10.[]

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