The University of Michigan Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum

Upjohn Gift Helps Preserve a Living Treasure

Dr. W.E. Upjohn

For immediate release:
A gift from the granddaughter of Michigan alumnus Dr. William E. Upjohn to Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum will help restore and protect the largest collection of heirloom peonies in North America. The gift honors Dr. Upjohn and establishes the W.E. Upjohn Peony Garden Fund to care for the historically and internationally significant Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden. The $500,000 gift from Martha G. Parfet, the last living grandchild of W.E. Upjohn, is the largest endowment gift in the history of the Gardens and Arboretum.

Upjohn, founder of the Upjohn Company in Kalamazoo, Mich., and an avid peony collector, donated 280 peony varieties to the University of Michigan from his personal collection and with the assistance of leading peony growers by 1927. More than 90 years later, many of the same peonies are still blooming where they were planted.

More than 90 years later, many of the same peonies are still blooming where they were planted.

Support from the Upjohn family runs deep at the University of Michigan, and the peony garden gift is part of that long-standing affiliation. Dr. Upjohn and five of his siblings earned degrees from Michigan in medicine or pharmacy between 1871 and 1886. That began a nearly 150-year-old connection with U-M that has included degrees and gifts across the university, Parfet says. “Amelia and Mary Upjohn, who earned their pharmacy degrees in 1871, were among the first four women graduates from any unit of the University of Michigan,” notes Parfet. Helen and brothers William E., Henry, and James all graduated with medical degrees.

Parfet adds that much like her own family’s connection to Michigan, the Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden combines a link to the past with a strong mission of preservation for generations still to come. “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,” Parfet observes. “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.”

A 1920s view of the peony garden

The W.E. Upjohn Peony Garden Fund will play a key role in three long-term stewardship goals for the Peony Garden as a model for historic gardens. The gift will insure a high level of care and interpretation of the Peony Garden. It will create a network of partners for backing-up rare peonies in the collection to ensure their long-term preservation. And it will expand the collection to include a broader group of historic herbaceous and tree peonies, relating to key conservation and historic themes.

Already in the midst of a multi-year renewal, the Peony Garden benefits enormously from Mrs. Parfet’s gift, says Matthaei-Nichols Director Robert Grese. “This gift recognizes the importance of W. E. Upjohn’s original gift and its promise for the future. Our project provides an excellent model for documenting and preserving living historic plant collections. We hope to preserve both the plants themselves as well as their important stories. Peonies are especially rich in this regard, having been treasured by so many different cultures.”

A 2013 view of the peony garden

Peonies are widely celebrated, representing important symbols of longevity, beauty, and artistic aspiration in several cultures and throughout many generations, notes Grese. They have long been treasured in Asian gardens and are well-represented in the arts and literature of those cultures.

Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum is unique in offering the only living collection of any University of Michigan museum. Of great historical and cultural significance, the Peony Garden is the largest collection of herbaceous heirloom peonies in North America and an international reference for peony experts and peony lovers alike.

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