His “salvation and his companions”
In 1922, Dr. W. E. Upjohn gave a gift of peonies to the University of Michigan that would become what is now the University of Michigan Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden.
Upjohn’s significant gift has come full circle, as his family recently came together on the 100th anniversary of his gift with a donation of $2 million to name the gardens after its original donor. On May 19, the U-M Board of Regents approved naming the garden the W.E. Upjohn Peony Garden, in recognition of collective gifts from members of the Upjohn family.
“The peonies were my father’s salvation and his companions,” his late daughter Genevieve Upjohn once said. “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.”
An annual pilgrimage
The Peony Garden has delighted the local community for nearly a century, and visiting it has become an annual spring pilgrimage for visitors from Michigan and beyond. Each year, the garden presents a stunning display, with 350 historic herbaceous varieties from the 19th and 20th centuries opening in near unison. At peak bloom, visitors are treated to more than 10,000 blossoms in shades of pink, red, and white.This meaningful space assumed form in 1922 with a donation of peonies from Upjohn, a U-M Medical School alumnus (1875) and founder of the Upjohn Pharmaceutical Company in Kalamazoo, Mich. It was this gift of a large, critically evaluated collection of herbaceous peonies that established the Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden.
It is believed that Upjohn contributed peonies from his own extensive collection, as well as exceptional selections from nationally recognized experts. This initial collection has grown over the last hundred years, and the Peony Garden is now considered the largest collection of antique and heirloom herbaceous peonies in North America, with specimens that represent many of the important American, Canadian, and European herbaceous peonies of the era — over half of which are no longer commercially available.
In 1927, after Upjohn’s initial donation was established, the Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden opened to the public. The following year, the U-M Board of Regents acknowledged the resolution by the Directors of the American Peony Society that recognized the Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden. This acknowledgment underscored the significance of the gift and the intent to establish a major herbaceous and tree peony collection at U-M.
100 years of peonies sounds like…
“Hybrid Cultivars,” created by Alexis Lamb, a U-M Doctorate of Musical Arts in Composition candidate, consists of 27 single-pipe chimes installed throughout the garden. Each chime plays a similar pitch, so as you walk among the flower beds you are immersed in a drone-like sound of the collective chimes as they interact with different natural elements and humans. This is Lamb’s way of encouraging people to “open their ears to what is already around them” Read more.
A great passion
In the last several years, interest in the garden has become a family affair. Upjohn’s granddaughter, Martha Gilmore Parfet, reconnected with the garden a decade ago.
“We’re proud to be part of the effort to preserve the collection for the future,” she said 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.”
In 2016, Parfet made a gift of $500,000, the largest endowment gift in the history of the Gardens and Arboretum at the time, to help restore and protect the largest collection of heirloom peonies in North America. The gift was made in honor of her grandfather and established the W.E. Upjohn Peony Garden Endowment Fund to care for the historically and internationally significant garden.
It was Parfet’s desire to make additional gifts in her lifetime to name the Peony Garden the “W.E. Upjohn Peony Garden.” She died in 2017 at age 91, before she could reach this goal.
Parfet’s children have since made additional contributions through the Martha & Ted Parfet Donor Advised Fund of the Kalamazoo Community Foundation to reach the naming goal their mother had set. Additional members of the Upjohn family have made personally significant gifts to the fund as well.
Upjohn was founder and president of the Upjohn Company for nearly 40 years. (Upjohn merged with Pharmacia Corp. in 1995 and is now part of Pfizer Inc.). In 1886, he invented an easily crushable pill known as a “friable pill,” which was easily crushed to a powder, to compete with the bitter and insoluble pills at the time.
He was one of 12 children and one of four siblings who became physicians. Upjohn received his medical degree from U-M in 1875 and then practiced medicine in Hastings, Mich., for 10 years. In addition to his medical practice, he was also a nationally noted philanthropist, known as “Kalamazoo’s First Citizen,” and his death in 1932 left the community in mourning.A passionate collector and evaluator of herbaceous peonies, he was active in the American Peony Society, serving as treasurer for a term beginning in 1923. His personal estate near Kalamazoo held more than 600 cultivars across at least 14 acres of peony beds. Upjohn enjoyed opening his private collection to the public — free of charge — during the bloom season.
He also kept meticulous track of his peonies and privately published “Brook Lodge Gardens – Peonies.” This booklet, published after 1922, contains his articulate opinions of the virtues and diverse intriguing facts peony by peony.