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Written by davethetreecenters • May 01 Coral Peonies

When most of us think of peonies, we probably picture big, fluffy blooms in shades of pinks, rich, velvety reds, or pure whites. There is a cluster of varieties, though, that bring something different – wonderful warm, glowing colors of coral pinks and tones edging into oranges. These varieties bring a unique look to your garden, and they are carried on vigorous plants with extra-handsome foliage, looking attractive from spring into fall. If you love colors that are outside the usual red, white and pink of most plants, then you must grow these wonderful coral peonies. They have a fascinating back-story too, so let’s learn more about them.

The Coral Charm Peony

Once the most widely grown peony for cut flowers, and still grown commercially around the world, the peony called ‘Coral Charm’ is a special beauty. The bush has particularly attractive foliage that keeps it lovely when not in bloom, but it is the huge blooms, standing proudly on stiff, upright stems a full 36 inches long, that makes it so special. Blooms begin to open around the end of May or in the first days of June, and last unusually long, for up to 3 weeks. They begin as tight buds of a deep, bright pink. As they expand into a bowl of petals up to 8 inches across, they change color, something very rare in peony flowers. From that bright pink they pass into peachy-pinks, gradually taking on more apricot tones and sliding into deep creams. Eventually they lighten into soft cream, before the petals drift to the ground, and you make a note to be around next year to see again the wonder of all this. The flowers are semi-double, so the center of the bloom, packed with twisted stamens, is also part of the beauty of this unique plant. It was given the American Peony Society’s highest award, a Gold Medal, in 1986, but had been released earlier, around 1977. Other coral colors followed, creating a whole family of Coral Peonies. The breeding record of ‘Coral Charm’ shows simply “Originator, Wissing”, but those two simple words hide a complex story.

Peony Breeders

Breeding plants is a slow, tedious process, and often frustrating. It takes a special kind of person to devote years to an activity that can end in failure. Some of our plants are the creations of professionals with initials after their names and backing from universities or botanical gardens.

The world of peony breeding includes both, and many of the most popular traditional varieties were created in France, by professional nurserymen like Victor Lemoine and François Félix Crousse. No wonder so many varieties have complicated ‘foreign’ names! In America too there have been, and still are, big specialist nurseries breeding peonies, but scratch the surface a little and we find an interesting situation.

The actual breeding process is tricky, and results are slow to come. There isn’t any money to be made at that stage, so it has often fallen to dedicated amateurs to be ‘down in the trenches’ finding that new, different and special variety. After that, though, since peonies could not be propagated quickly, it needs a professional nursery, with plenty of acreage, and staff, to take that one precious plant and turn it into the thousands needed to release it into the hands of gardeners, and have it become well-known. One such partnership, that led to the creation of the first coral peony, was between the amateur breeder  Samuel Wissing and the professional nursery of Roy Klehm. Let’s meet the players in this story.

Roy Klehm and his Nursery

A young Roy Klehm at the nursery

In 1851 America was still a new country, full of opportunities, and a magnet for Europeans trapped in poverty, war and economic turmoil. Catherine Klehm was a German widow with two teenage sons and she brought them to America, as so many have and still do, for a new and better life. The started out in Buffalo, New York, with the two boys, John and Carl, working as bricklayers, but John didn’t enjoy it and took a job grafting cherry trees. That he enjoyed and found more profitable, so in 1862 they moved to Arlington Heights, Illinois. There he bought an acre of land which he at first planned to grow potatoes on, but the changed his  mind and instead planted fruit trees he had grafted. Carl joined him and the nursery expanded, probably adding evergreens to the mix. In 1899 they went to Chicago for the World’s Fair, and there they were entranced by the display of peonies put on by Félix Crousse. Hooked, they took up growing peonies as cut flowers, a big business at the time, with peonies and flowers in vases both hugely popular. The nursery expanded to between 147 and 200 acres (accounts vary) and they became America’s biggest producer of peonies. When eventually sold it disappeared under the expanding town of Scarsdale.

John had three sons, Charles, George, and Henry, and by the time they were 12 they were all working in the family business. Charles became a founding member of the American Peony Society in 1903 and with his son Carl Jr. he took control of the business, naming it Charles Klehm & Son. Carl Jr. registered his first peony in 1951, but of course breeding must have begun long before that, because it can take at least 10 years, and often much more, to bring a new plant to market. Later Carl’s son Roy G. Klehm took over, and it is Roy that is our link to the Coral Peonies.

Samuel Wissing, Amateur Breeder

We know very little about Samuel Wissing, except that he was a chemist. There does seem to be a connection between scientists, doctors and plant breeding for many different plants. He was born in 1899 and seems to have lived most of his life in Lombard, Illinois. He was a plant lover, and became interested in peonies in the 1930s, and began breeding around 1940. A keen amateur, he loved finding new varieties, and registering them officially, calling them his ‘candidates for fame’. He was an active member of the American Peony Society, and staged a successful exhibition of his seedlings at their 1968 show. He formed a friendship and business partnership with Roy G. Klehm. Wissing provided new seedlings, Klehm built up stocks of them, registered them, usually for Wissing, or jointly, and perhaps sometimes under his own name, and helped promote them. Samuel Wissing died in 1970. No images seem publicly available of him.

The Coral Peonies

‘Coral Charm’

Wissing registered many peonies, but he is remembered mostly for his coral series, which were was mostly released during the 1960s. Of course, given the long time-frame of peony breeding, he must have made the initial crosses much earlier, and it is usually said he took 26 years to create these plants. First was ‘Coral Charm’, registering by Klehm in 1964. It is a second-generation plant of a cross between two species. One was a Paeonia lactifora variety called ‘Minnie Shaylor’, a semi-double with pink flowers that fade to white. The other was ‘Otto Froebel’, a bright red variety with single flowers, of a European species called Paeonia peregrina. He crossed together again the first seedlings from that hybridization, and among them was the plant that became ‘Coral Charm’. A planting is shown at the head of this blog.

‘Coral Sunset’

This success was followed the next year, in 1965, with the registration of ‘Coral Sunset’. Just as beautiful, but less widely seen, the coloring is more orange, but it still passes through the same sequence, from pink to cream, as the flowers mature.

Another seedling was registered in 1966 with the name ‘Coral Destiny’. It has a white center in the coral flower, but the variety seems to have been lost, or remains only in a few private collections. No images seem to exist.

‘Coral Supreme’

Then, to add variety to your coral peonies collections, there is ‘Coral Supreme’. Also registered in 1964, and again in 1981 by Klehm, it has more salmon-pink tones, and is a perfect companion for the other varieties.

‘Pink Hawaiian Sunset’

Round things out with ‘Pink Hawaiian Sunset’, a plant with slightly mysterious origins. It is a blend of coral and pink in a more formal arrangement of petals, and instead of ‘Minnie Shaylor’ it has the ‘Charlie’s White’ as the P. lactiflora parent with ‘Otto Froebel’ again. it was released by Klehm in 1981, reportedly flowering for the first time in 1977, well after Wissing’s death. Whether it was actually created by him or by Klehm remains unknown.

Other peonies have ‘Coral’ in their name, including others by Klehm that have a similar look to Wissing’s plants. But none match the glory of Wissing’s trio – ‘Coral Charm’, ‘Coral Sunset’ and ‘Coral Supreme’. For unique coloring on outstanding garden plants they simply can’t be beaten – period.