University of Michigan Peony Garden renamed for its founder

ANN ARBOR – The family of the original donor of University of Michigan’s Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden has donated $2 million to name the gardens after him.

Dr. W.E. Upjohn gave a gift of peonies to the university in 1922, which has become one of the most expansive and historic peony gardens in North America.

The U-M Board of Regents approved the renaming of the garden on May 19.

In May and June each year, visitors flock from Michigan and beyond to witness the more than 10,000 red, pink and white blooms across 350 historic herbaceous varieties dating back to the 19th and 20th centuries. Upjohn, who graduated from U-M’s Medical School in 1875, donated plants from his personal collection, which included American, Canadian and European herbaceous varieties.

More than half of the peonies from the original garden are no longer commercially available.

“We’re honored that the university has cared for the peony collection for more than 90 years and proud to be part of the effort to preserve the collection for the future,” Upjohn’s granddaughter Martha Gilmore Parfet said a statement in 2012. “Peonies were one of my grandfather’s great passions, and he would be so pleased to see how plants from his original collection are still growing, and will continue to thrive, in Nichols Arboretum.”

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W.E. Upjohn. (University of Michigan)

Parfet made a gift of $500,000 in 2016, which at the time was the largest endowment gift ever to Matthaei-Nichols. The gift established the W.E. Upjohn Peony Garden Endowment Fund to maintain the historic garden. Her goal was to name the garden after her grandfather, but she passed away at the age of 91 in 2017 before she made that a reality.

Both personal contributions from other family members and her children via the Martha & Ted Parfet Donor Advised Fund of the Kalamazoo Community Foundation and reached the goal of naming the garden the W.E. Upjohn Peony Garden.

“The peonies were my father’s salvation and his companions,” his late daughter Genevieve Upjohn said in a statement. “He loved growing them; he loved talking about them; he loved picking them; he even wrote his own definitions of the different varieties and had them printed in a booklet. Peonies were picked and put into bouquets for the guests to buy. Many were given away to the public schools and colleges for graduation each year.”

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Upjohn founded the Upjohn Company and was its president for nearly four decades. His company is now part of Pfizer Inc. after a 1995 merger with Pharmacia Corp. Upjohn also invented a “friable pill” in 1886, which could be easily crushed. The pill was a game changer in a time when pills were bitter and unable to be dissolved.

He was a dedicated peony collector and evaluator and served as treasurer of the American Peony Society for a time in 1923. His personal collection included more than 600 cultivars across 14 acres, which he would reportedly open to the public free of charge to enjoy each spring. He passed away in 1932.

On June 4, the garden’s centennial celebration will take place from 1-3 p.m. Nichols Arboretum Director Tony Kolenic, members of the Upjohn family, Peony Curator David Michener and other will speak at the event.

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