By the turn of the century, the number of both commercial and amateur growers had greatly increased and the confusion as to variety names had grown worse and worse. In June 1902, Charles Willis Ward, president of Cottage Gardens Nursery, Queens, Long Island, New York, sent out a letter to growers of peonies calling attention to "the unsatisfactory condition of the nomenclature of the peony." He suggested the formation of an association to straighten out the nomenclature and to advance the public interest in the peony. In response to this appeal, twenty-four persons, including amateurs as well as nurserymen, signified their willingness to cooperate in forming a society. A preliminary meeting was held in Brooklyn in February 1903, and the first annual meeting took place in June in Detroit. Mr. Ward was elected president and Arthur H. Fewkes of Newton, Massachusetts, was named secretary.
With the formation o£ the American Peony Society the history of peony growing becomes practically synonymous with the history of the Society. The two therefore will be treated together. The names of many famous horticultural firms are to be found in the membership list of the first two years. They include seedsmen, such as Henry A. Dreer; florists, such as Philip Breitmeyer; and nurseries and nurserymen, such as Andorra, Arthur Bryant and Son, John Charlton and Sons, J. Wilkinson Elliot, Ellwanger and Barry, Jules Heurlin, Jackson and Perkins, Klehm's, J. Woodward Manning, Thomas Meehan and Sons, William A. Peterson, W. T. Smith, Storrs and Harrison, T. C. Thurlow, and Gilbert Wild.
There were also individuals already famous, or later to become famous, as peony growers. Among these were Carl Betscher, C. S. Harrison, George Hollis, Robert T. Jackson, J. F. Rosenfield, and E. J. Shaylor.
In the effort to compile peony records, President Ward induced Auguste Dessert, the famous French peony specialist, to compile a descriptive list of 549 authentic French and Belgian peony varieties introduced between 1865 and 1902. To this list Mr. Fewkes added nearly 300 varieties of Kelway in England, and of Ellwanger and Barry, George Hollis, Mrs. Sarah A. Pleas, John Richardson, and H. A. Terry in this country, thus covering all varieties introduced between 1844 and 1904.
At the New York meeting in 1904 the Society agreed to enter into cooperation with the Horticultural Department of the Experiment Station at Cornell University for the purpose of making a test garden for the study of varieties. The study was to extend over a sufficient number of years to enable the investigators: 1. to bring order out of the confusion and to establish correct names by applying rules of nomenclature, and to furnish accurate descriptions of all authentic varieties; 2. to ascertain the botanical status of all varieties; and, 3. to determine the commercial values of the different varieties, particularly their vigor, health, floriferous qualities, and colors.
The Experiment Station was to provide the land, the labor of planting, and all subsequent care. All notes were to be taken by the Station according to the scheme arranged by the committee appointed by the Society. The plants were to be furnished free of cost by the Society and its members. Three plants of each variety would constitute a test. At the close of the test, the Experiment Station was to be entitled to a complete set of two plants each of all distinct varieties, and each contributor would be entitled to as many plants as he originally contributed, providing they were available after the Experiment Station set had been made up. The remaining plants were to become the property of the American Peony Society. The results of the study were to be published in bulletin form by the Experiment Station and all members of the Society were to be entitled to a copy of each publication.
The first plants were received at Cornell in the autumn of 1904. The plants were set three feet apart in rows four leet apart and 1933 varieties were received the first year. The most important European donors were August Dessert, Chenonceaux, France, 230 varieties; Goos and Koenemann, Niederwalluf, Germany, 200; and L. Paillet, Chatenay, France, 169. Smaller numbers came from Croux, Chatenay, France; from van Leeuwen, Sassenheim, Holland; and from Peter Barr and James Veitch, London. The most important American contributors were Cottage Gardens, 376 varieties; John Charlton, Rochester, 149; Bertrand H. Fair, Wyomissing, Penna,, 147; Ellwanger & Barry, Rochester, 135; Peterson Nursery, Chicago, 125; and J. F. Rosenfield, West Point, Nebraska, 113. Smaller numbers of varieties were received from Andorra Nursery, Storrs & Harrison, Thurlow's Nursery, Jackson & Perkins, George Hollis, Dr. C. S. Minot, and half a dozen others.
The first objective of the test garden, to bring order out of the confusion in nomenclature, took a number of years. It was first under the direction of Professor John Craig of Cornell and then under his assistants, J. Eliot Coit and Leon D. Batchelor. Mr. Farr agreed to carry the main burden of the work for the Society, assisted by Joseph Dauphin of Cottage Gardens Nursery. They worked not only at Ithaca but at Wyomissing and Queens.
The great need for a survey of nomenclature was soon dramatically proven. Prominent examples were Edulis Superba, which was sent to Cornell under twenty-three different names; and Dr. Bretonneau which came under fourteen different names. Almost all widely grown varieties appeared under more than one name.
In 1907 Coit published A Peony Check List of all peony names that had appeared in horticultural literature, magazines or catalogs or on labels of plants sent to Cornell. This was the beginning of the great check lists of the Society, published in the 1928 Manual and now kept up to date in card form at Kingwood Center, Mansfield, Ohio.
Later Cornell publications were Bulletins No. 259 by Coit in 1908; No. 278 by Batchelor in 1910; and No. 306 in 1911 by Batchelor. This completed the work. In 1912 the test garden was broken up and the plants disseminated.
Hans Peter Sass came from Germany to Omaha in 1884 and became a farmer. He started peony growing in 1903 on his eighty-acre farm near Washington, Nebraska. He began breeding in 1908 and used hand pollination. He kept careful records of his crosses. He worked mostly with the bomb type as seed parents because they had no Pollen and could not self-fertilize and he used Edulis Superba, Felix Crousse, M. Jules Elie, M. Martin Cahuzac, and other top varieties. He never took any active part in the Society, perhaps on account of language difficulties. He sold out in 1938 to Interstate Nurseries, Hamburg, Iowa.
Col. Jesse C. Nicholls was graduated from the University of Alabama before attending West Point. For many years he was in charge of military instruction at Cornell. He died in 1961. He was one of the most remarkable of the peony (38-39) breeders and his varieties which began to come out about 1935 have consistently held a high place. Of the thirty-two varieties he named and introduced, we can mention here Mrs. Livingston Farrand, named for the wife of the President of Cornell, Mary E. Nicholls, Florence Nicholls, Florence Ellis, Harry F. Little, Nancy Nicholls, George W. Peyton, A. B. C. Nicholls, J. C. Nicholls, George J. Nicholls, Kate Barry, and Mrs. Wilder Bancroft.
Allen J. Wild of Sarcoxie, Missouri, joined his father in the Gilbert H. Wild and Son Nursery, then already famous and today probably the world's leading nursery of peonies, iris and daylilies. This firm yearly sells carloads of cut peonies. The best known of their peonies are Hargrove Hudson, Albuquerque, and The Mighty Mo.
Eugene H. Lins of Cologne, Minnesota, operates a nursery and has grown splendid seedlings using hand pollination and keeping careful records. Among his finest varieties are Ramona Lins, Dolorodel, Mandaleen, and Tondeleyo.
William H. Krekler grew up on his father's farms in Ohio and Indiana. He studied landscape architecture at the University of Illinois. He worked in a number of states for the famous firm of Olmsted Brothers. He has managed the Peacock Nursery of Akron, Ohio, since 1928, and also manages farms in West Elkton, Ohio. He was instrumental in starting a peony nursery in England. He is now growing about 1300 kinds of peonies and has three acres of seedlings. He has named many splendid peonies, among them Corinne Wersan, Russell Emrick, and Gertrude Cox. He bought out the stock of such breeders as Winslow, Claybaugh, and H. L. Smith, and parts of many other collections, and has run special tests on varieties of a number of other breeders.
The only Canadian to make important contributions to peonies is Lyman W. Cousins of London, Ontario. He is a lithographer and photographer, interested in gardening and plant breeding for over forty years. His best known variety is Ann Cousins, introduced in 1946.