A peek into our collections, one object at a time

A Peony of a Different Color

June 3, 2015
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yellow bloom
John Gibbons / Smithsonian

Her name is Bartzella, and she is something of a novelty and relative newcomer in the world of peonies. She definitely stands out among the other peonies in the Smithsonian’s Mary Livingston Ripley Garden in Washington, D.C. Her top distinction is the color of her petals: yellow.

Herbaceous peonies (those that die back in the winter) have been cultivated for centuries and admired for their range of color, from crisp white to deep magenta and every shade of pink in between. One color that eluded gardeners and horticulturists, however, was yellow. But that changed in 1948 when Japanese horticulturist Toichi Itoh did what others said was impossible.

Itoh was the first to successfully hybridize herbaceous peonies with their close relative tree peonies, which, along with having woody stems and lacier foliage, can have yellow pigment for their flowers. The result: the first peonies to have an herbaceous growth cycle and have truly yellow flowers. These hybrids are known as intersectional or “Itoh” peonies.

Today there are several varieties of yellow Itoh peonies, but it is Bartzella who steals the show for a few weeks each spring in the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden. That garden is one of a dozen managed and maintained by Smithsonian Gardens staff.