Monday, April 11, 2016

2016 Peony Hybridizer Interview - Don R. Smith

Peony Hybridizer - Don R. Smith

1. Did your early life give you an introduction to the world of plants and flowers?

"When I was a child, we lived in a small house with a small yard in a little town in northeast New Jersey. Neither of my parents were gardeners, but I remember a small patch of rhubarb growing next to our garage. I was always impressed by how huge the leaves would grow. There was also a very large Mock Orange “bush” (Philadelphus Coronarius), which always seemed to attract a lot of different types of birds. I don’t remember much else about the yard except for a small garden with 3 very large old peony plants that were left behind by the people who lived in our house before us. I can’t remember if there were 2 reds and one white or the other way around, but I know that my mother really loved those old peonies. My guess is that the white was probably Festiva Maxima and that the red was Felix Crousse. To this day, rhubarb is my favorite pie and peonies are my favorite flower."

2. What year did you start hybridizing?

"I first became interested in hybridizing in the early 1970’s, when I dabbled around for a little while without much success, but then my attention and interest got diverted by several major research projects at work and then later by marriage, children and family responsibilities. It took me until the early 1990’s before I could find the time to return to gardening and again pursue my interest in hybridizing. My first intersectional peony hybrid appeared in 1993."

3. What made you want to get into peony hybridizing?

"I think it was my need to try to create something new and beautiful as opposed to just collecting and growing the beautiful creations of others. I guess it is a little like the need that many people have to participate in a sport as a player rather than being just a spectator."

4. Are you self trained, or have you taken classes or read books on hybridizing before you started?

"I have no formal or informal training in horticulture or breeding. Most of what I have learned comes from reading articles on plant breeding and from years of hands-on (trial and error) experience in my garden. So, I guess you could say that, I learned by following the advice of others at the beginning and then picked up the rest as I went along."

5. What kind of peonies do you specialize in?

"From the very first time that I saw a bright yellow tree peony hybrid, I have been infatuated with the idea of yellow peonies. I purchased and collected as many as I could afford at the time. Then I learned about the existence of yellow “herbaceous” peonies called Itoh or intersectional hybrids, so I had to get some of these new peonies as well. But soon, just growing these stunning new peonies wasn’t enough. I needed to try to create some of these remarkable new peonies myself. At the time, there were only a handful of intersectional peonies in existence, so this seemed like this might be a very fruitful direction to pursue. Twenty plus years later, hybridizing intersectional peonies remains the singular passion of my life."

Don R. Smith's Intersectional Peonies

6. How would you characterize your breeding program?

"I consider myself to be a serious amateur breeder specializing in developing new and improved intersectional peonies. However, over the last 20+ years, my hybridizing goals have evolved, so that today my primary focus is on creating fertile advanced generation intersectional hybrids. This is important, if this remarkable new hybrid group is to survive and eventually become a new race of peonies where their survival is not dependent on man. This is important because the first generation hybrids are highly sterile triploids, which very rarely produce viable seeds."

7. How has your "eye" for evaluating peonies changed over the years?

"Over the years, I have learned to focus less on the flowers, and especially on things like flower size and form, but instead to focus more of my attention on the value of these plants in the garden. Thus, I look more at features like flower presentation and the number and quality of the sidebud flowers, both of which lead to more desirable landscape plants and a longer period of bloom."

8. When you look at a plant as an experienced hybridizer, what do you see?

"I see a plant for the garden or landscape setting. Which means, I focus on many aspects of the plant, not just the flowers. This includes plant habit, foliage and flower presentation. Yes, the flowers are important too, but they are not everything. The number of flowers and the number of days that the plant stays in bloom are also very important, as are characteristics such as health, vigor and resistance to disease."

9. When you evaluate your seedlings, what are your major criteria?

"I rate all of my intersectional peony seedlings according to their overall landscape value, which is to say, how the plants look in the garden and the landscape as most gardeners usually view and enjoy their flowers. After much thought, I finally settled on three main factors to use in my evaluation process."

"First is the number and presentation of the flowers. This can best be evaluated by the average number of sidebud flowers per stem and from the strength of the main and auxiliary stems. The second factor is the plant habit, vigor and health, which includes the attractiveness and disease resistance of the plant and especially the foliage. The third factor is the overall quality and attractiveness of the flowers, which includes things like flower color, size and form, but also uniqueness in color pattern, such as flares, stripes, speckles and picotee edges."

Don R. Smith's Unnamed Seedlings

10. What are your aspirations for the future of peonies?

"Until fairly recently, there were only two major types of peonies, the herbaceous type and the woody type, which are generally referred to as tree peonies. Now, of course, we have a third type of peonies that are semi-woody in habit, which are the intersectional or Itoh peonies. The first two groups are fertile and thus self-sustaining, but the intersectional group are all still first-generation (F1) hybrids and thus as a group are extremely sterile. I recently estimated the chances of obtaining a viable seed from an intersectional hybrid by open pollination to be less than 1 in 6 million. This extraordinary infertility is in large part due to the fact that these first-generation hybrids are all triploids with three sets of chromosomes, which makes normal meiosis nearly impossible. Despite this, it is my dream to see this important new group of peonies become self-sustaining as well. Thus, in recent years, I have shifted my emphasis significantly towards trying to produce a few second generation (F2) or back-cross (BC) hybrids with the hope that some of these plants will have their fertility, at least, partially restored."

10(a). So, how is this work going so far?

"I would have to say “slow, but steady”. In the previous 4-5 years, I have identified a few “special” hybrids from the 300+ blooming intersectional hybrids in my garden that have exhibited a small degree of fertility as either pollen or seed parents. Working primarily with these selected hybrids, I made many hundreds of intersectional back-crosses (IBC), using intersectional pollen on various lactiflora varieties in my garden. Then, in the last two years, I also made hundreds of back-crosses in the opposite direction, this time using the intersectional hybrids as the seed parent. Thus, using pollen from various lactiflora varieties and fertile advanced generation herbaceous hybrids onto the selected intersectional seed parents. As a result of this latest effort, I now have 2 surviving reverse intersectional back-cross (RIBC) seedlings from two different intersectional hybrid seed parents. So now, we will have to wait to see if these unique hybrids will survive to maturity and whether they will display better fertility than their intersectional seed parents. Fully restored fertility in this group will require progeny that have returned to the diploid level or elevated to the tetraploid level."

11. What is your favorite named and registered cultivar so far (of your own)?

"This is a question that I get a lot. But, picking a single variety as my “favorite” is a little like being asked which one of your children is your favorite. How do you answer such as question? It is even hard for me to pick my top three or five varieties, never mind my favorite one. This being said, if I had to choose only one, I would have to pick Pink Double Dandy, which is being sold by Monrovia under the tradename, Keiko."

Don R. Smith's Peony 'Pink Double Dandy' (Keiko)

11(a). So what makes Pink Double Dandy so special?

"Well, PDD has just about everything you could want in a garden/landscape plant. First, it is extremely floriferous with mature specimens routinely having close to a hundred flowers in a season. Next, the flowers are near perfectly presented just above and beyond the beautiful foliage. This plant blooms in two distinct, but overlapping, waves of flowers with the later blooming sidebud flowers being consistently more double than the earlier terminal flowers. The color is a lovely shade of deep lavender pink which becomes deeper towards the flower center. It is easily among the top 2 or 3 performers in my garden each and every year."

Don R. Smith's Peony 'Pink Double Dandy' (Keiko)

12. Which of your peonies are your oldies but goodies?

"It is hard for me to think about any of my hybrids as “oldies” since only a handful of my varieties have been widely available for more than several years. Having said this, I would say that only ones that I could put into such a category would be Singing in the Rain, Magical Mystery Tour and Yankee Doodle Dandy."

Don R. Smith's Peony 'Yankee Doodle Dandy'

13. Which of your new registrations are you most excited about?

"Other than Pink Double Dandy (Keiko) which we have already discussed, I would have to say that the one variety that I am most excited about is a little known variety called Scrum-didley-umptious. This variety is one of my most consistent and reliable performers. One of the features, which makes this variety so special, is that the sidebud flowers are not only plentiful, but also extremely double. Like PDD, this plant has just about everything that you could want in a peony. Unfortunately, due to its limited availability in the marketplace, it has remained greatly under-appreciated. I believe in time this variety will become one of my best intersectional hybrids and will eventually find a place near the top of the list of the finest intersectional hybrid peonies. Every year this remarkable plant is covered with very large, fully double flowers that are perfectly displayed just above and beyond the beautiful foliage. It blooms early and stays in bloom for up to 3 weeks or more. The flowers are pale yellow heavily flushed and suffused with pink when first open, thus appearing light pink. Mature flowers are cream flushed with light pink and highlighted by darker pink flares."

Don R. Smith's Peony 'Scrumdidleyumptious'

14. What is the story behind the first peony you ever registered?

"The first of my intersectional hybrids to bloom flowered in 2000. Although, it didn’t look that special in its first year of bloom, this plant turned out to be an exceptional variety, which was later registered, along with 11 other varieties in 2004, under the name Singing in the Rain. The name came to me one day when several visitors were scheduled to visit my garden for the first time. As luck would have it, it poured all night long the night before my guests were to arrive, and I was sure that my garden would look like a total mess when my guests arrived the next morning. To my surprise, when we walked down to the garden that morning, most of the plants looked better than I had imagined, but one in particular looked really fantastic. As I walked through my garden that morning, the name Singing in the Rain jumped into my head and I couldn’t get the tune from the 1952 movie out of my head all day. It was right there and then that I knew I had the perfect name for my very first named variety. The following year, I counted 155 flowers on this extraordinary plant, which remains the largest number of flowers I have ever counted on a single plant in my garden. In 2014, the peony was selected as the “Peony of the Year” by the Canadian Peony Society."

Don R. Smith's Peony 'Singing in the Rain'

15. What is the average length of time you evaluate a peony before you put it on the market?

"The evaluation process starts when the seedlings are in their first year of growth, but, of course, there is not really much to evaluate during the first few years except for the foliage and the overall health and vigor of the plant. Serious evaluation begins in the second year of bloom, which usually occurs when the plants are 6-7 years old. From this point, adequate evaluation usually requires an additional 2 or 3 more years."

16. How do you come up with the names for your peonies?

"For the most part, my naming process is pretty random. I collect names that I come across or think of in a file on my computer for future use. They can come from almost anywhere; music, movies, Broadway shows, advertisements, etc. When I see a name somewhere that I like and think that I might want to use someday, I write it down and add it to my file. Sometimes, the plant or flower dictates a name such as was the case with Singing in the Rain. Other times I wait for a plant that seems to fit a name that I really like and that I am determined to use at some point with some variety such as with Magical Mystery Tour."

Don R. Smith's Peony 'Magical Mystery Tour'

17. Which of your peonies have proved to be the most popular with the public? Were any of these a surprise?

"My most popular varieties have been Singing in the Rain, Yankee Doodle Dandy and Smith Family Yellow, partially because these varieties have been more widely available than many of my others hybrids. Recently, however, Pink Double Dandy (Keiko) has become extremely popular as well."

Don R. Smith's Peony 'Smith Family Yellow'

18. What excites you about other hybridizers programs?

"I have long been very interested in the hybridizing programs of a number of other breeders, but especially those of Bill Seidl and Bernard Chow. Bill has been hybridizing peonies for close to half a century and, in that time, has produced a remarkable number of unique and extraordinary advanced generation herbaceous hybrids, such as Pastelegance, Carnation Bouquet, Valkyrie and The Little Corporal, just to name a few. These hybrids are notable, in large part, because they all contain at least 5 or more different species in their genetic makeup. In addition, Bill has also worked extensively with advanced generation (lutea) tree peony hybrids originated by Daphnis and Reath and produced many wonderful tree peony hybrids. He also distributed many of his fertile hybrids and hybrid seeds to other hybridizers throughout the world. One of these hybridizers was Bernard Chow in Melbourne, Australia. Bernard continued this work in Australia by cross breeding these AG hybrids and produced 100’s of beautiful new varieties in nearly every color, including many that are 7th, 8th and even 9th generation hybrids. In addition, he has been helping me for many years by sending me pollen from many of his best new hybrids. This has given me the opportunity to try close to 100 different tree peony pollens in my intersectional breeding program. Up to now, I probably have close to a hundred intersectional seedlings from these various pollens. And so, the progress continues with each new generation of breeders building on the hard work and success of those who came before them. So, in a way you could say that things have come full circle – “Around the world and back again”, going from the US to Australia and then back to the US."

19. Has the pleasure you have taken from the world of peonies changed and evolved over the years?

"The pleasure that I have received from my interest in peonies has increased greatly since I began hybridizing and growing my own peonies. Now, after many years of breeding my own intersectional peonies, I take great pleasure from seeing my hybrids being displayed by others at the annual flower shows as well as in public and private gardens all over the country."

20. What would you like to say to newbies just getting into the world of hybridizing peonies?

"Don’t be afraid to try something new that you are not sure you will be good at. I’m proof that you don’t need to have experience or training to be successful at hybridizing. Furthermore, you don’t have to be especially great at it in order to experience the joy and satisfaction of creating your own hybrid peonies. Hybridizing peonies is easy and rewarding and will greatly increase the joy and pleasure which you derive from your garden."

All Photos Courtesy of Don R. Smith
@ The Wonderful World of Intersectional Peonies


  1. Great questions, and a really wonderful overview of Don and his work.

    1. Bob,

      Thank you so much! I'm glad you enjoyed the interview.


  2. Loved reading and looking at the pics! Great interview!

    1. Liz,

      Thank you so much! I'm glad you enjoyed the interview.


  3. Replies
    1. Launa,

      Thank you so much! I'm glad you enjoyed the interview. Which one of his peonies do you grow?