It Happened at Michigan — The roots of U-M’s peony garden


William E. Upjohn loved to garden. Japanese iris, roses, phlox, columbine, daisies — he grew them all at his 40-acre summer home called Brook Lodge, located in Augusta, between Battle Creek and Kalamazoo.

An 1875 graduate of the U-M Medical School, Upjohn was the founder and president of the Upjohn Company, a pharmaceutical firm, and made his fortune by inventing friable pills that could easily be crushed and digested by patients.

A photo of William Upjohn's home with peonies in the garden
Peony beds at William E. Upjohn’s summer home, Brook Lodge. (Photo courtesy of Jeremy Winkworth,

Brook Lodge, with its lush gardens, was a perennial getaway for Upjohn, his wife, Rachel, and their four children. Once settled, there was no doubt about Upjohn’s favorite flower: the peony. And they became more special to him after he became a widower in 1905.

A photo of William Upjohn
William E. Upjohn

“The peonies were my father’s salvation and his companions. 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,” his daughter, Genevieve, recalled.

In 1922, as he neared his 70th birthday, Upjohn approached the U-M Board of Regents with an offer of “a very valuable collection of peonies.” In return, the regents allocated $2,000 to design a new garden for the plants, with Arb director Aubrey Tealdi, a professor of landscape design, creating the layout.

More than a century later, the W.E. Upjohn Peony Garden, along the northwestern edge of Nichols Arboretum, is home to one of the world’s most impressive collections of peonies.

A photo of a bloom in the W.E. Upjohn Peony Garden
A bloom in the W.E. Upjohn Peony Garden. (Photo courtesy of Michigan Photography)

When the garden’s 27 beds are in full bloom — anywhere from late May to mid-June — they showcase some 800 peonies and more than 10,000 flowers in an explosion of pinks, reds and whites. The garden attracts thousands of visitors, mirroring the popularity of Upjohn’s Brook Lodge in the early 20th century, when enthusiasts would overrun the property.

“His Sundays in June were always busy as he spent his time in the fields with guests, mostly strangers; but this was a great joy for him — talking peonies, picking peonies, and showing off his spectacular display of white, pink, and red,” Genevieve Upjohn said. “But dad loved the whole confusion. It provided him with company, someone to talk to about his flowers.”


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