It would have been my Grandma Anne's 100th birthday today. She was incredibly special to me, as I'm sure most would agree about their own grandma. She loved lots of things, and was gifted at several, and though she made over 100 quilts in her lifetime (she kept a journal of them) I associate her the most with peonies. She had a vast garden with hundreds of plants. The passion didn't stop there. We would go out to our property and collect pollen and seeds from the wild peonies for her to work on crossing with domestic peonies. She taught us about pollination, and would let us choose our own crosses to try each year. One of my favorite peonies is Coral Charm, it's a hybrid. She would explain that it couldn't be crossed, it wouldn't make seeds. To this I would always reply, "but they said crossing a wild peony and a domestic peony was impossible, and you did it." She would tell me it wasn't the same and explained the science behind it, but would let me use precious pollen to try anyway. I was never successful in my cross like she was with hers.
A wild peony (Paeonia brownii, or Brown's Peony) is one of the most difficult peony species to grow because it needs extremely well-drained soil and full sunshine throughout the day. The earliest evolutionary split within the genus Paeonia might have occurred between section Onaepia and the rest of the genus which is estimated to be 16.6 million years ago.
Paeonia brownii is a very rare plant outside of its range. Paeonia brownii needs cold temperatures to germinate (this can be done in the refrigerator) while Paeonia californica does not. Drainage seems to be the key to successfully growing Paeonia brownii and Paeonia californica.
According to the Peony Society, Anne Oveson is the only person to have claimed to have success with crossing wild peonies and domestic peonies. Unfortunately, the plants were not officially verified before she passed away and her garden was no longer there. That being said, she was highly respected in the Peony Society and several people traveled across the country and from around the world to come see her work and discuss peonies with her. She sent wild peony seeds to multiple cultivators and would receive seeds from other peonies in return.
Anne Oveson developed other cultivars which she was able to name. One of her favorite of these was her peony, Mary Gretchen, named after her aunt, Mary Gretchen Oliver. She was also honored by Irene Tolomeo, who was so grateful for her work with my grandma that she named a peony Anne Oveson.
In 2012, my sister took our grandmother to a national peony convention held in Portland. Anne cut three of the earliest peonies showing up in her garden at that time and left them in a vase at the convention, with no intent of entering them competitively. It wasn't until about a month later that my grandma, while reading a newsletter published by the American Peony Society (of which she was a long time member), learned she was one of only seven prize-winners from around 200 entrants at the Portland show.
My grandma never had a favorite peony, believe me, we asked several times over the years. I do however think she had a special place for the Paeonia Brownii, if nothing else, for the challenge it presented, the joy it gave her to get out in the pastures and timber to find them, and to have perseverance and hard work pay off.