Peony breeders

Nassos Daphnis - a Life for Art and Peonies


"If the eye were not sun-like,
how could it ever see the sun?"

(Goethe, Zahme Xenien III)



Nassos Daphnis - the peony breeder in the Gratwick nursery in Pavilion, N.Y., where he created his peonies

Photo: Nassos Daphnis

Nassos Daphnis - the painter in his studio in New York City with Walter Good (left) and Don Hollingsworth (right)

Photo: Lavon Hollingsworth

After a period of several decades in which tree peonies were out of fashion, there has now for some years been a veritable tree peony boom. This boom, however, has a drawback: though of course it is good that garden lovers are turning more to the queen or king of flowers, the market is overflowing with cheap offers from Japan and Holland. Many garden centers offer inexpensive tree peonies, but their only criterion is flower color. As a rule these peonies are unselected Japanese varieties or seedlings. This may satisfy the ordinary garden lover who simply wants to have a beautiful tree peony with red, white or pink flowers. It cannot, however, satisfy the genuine peony lover who would like to cultivate particular varieties, such as the pink 'Shintenchi' with the dark carpels, or the white 'Shimane Hakugan', which has almost black carpels.






Japanese Moutan (pollen parent)

Photo: Walter Good






Paeonia lutea (seed parent)

Photo: Prof. Gian Lupo Osti, Rome, taken in free nature in China






Paeonia delavayi (seed parent)

Photo: Walter Good





Lutea hybrid (Paeonia 'Hephestos'), BC1

Photo: Nassos Daphnis

The American Lutea hybrids are crosses between Paeonia lutea (and Paeonia delavayi) and Japanese forms of Paeonia suffruticosa, and to simplify matters they will be referred to as "Moutan" in the following article. These creations of the American art of crossbreeding are very expensive, so it is small wonder that they are so difficult to find in Europe.


This portrait of the Greek-American peony breeder Nassos Daphnis is presented to bring to the reader's attention one of the most significant American peony breeders, and to help to spread Lutea hybrids in Europe.

The article deliberately goes into some detail in order to give the interested peony lover an insight into the practical work of breeding. At the beginning of the description of every plant of Nassos Daphnis the reader finds the respective seed and pollen parents (seed parent x pollen parent). Peony lovers who may be motivated by this article to try out crosses themselves should take into consideration the fact that fertility increases with the increasing proportion of Moutan i.e. BC1, BC2 crossings are much more fertile than the first F1-crossings.


From the Peloponnese to the Hudson River

In 1930, in the middle of the Great Depression, a 16-year-old Greek boy landed in New York. Like many of his contemporaries who emigrated to the country of unlimited possibilities, the young Greek hoped to make his fortune in America. He was born in the little village of Krockeai in the region of Lakedemonia near Sparta on 23rd July 1914, just before the outbreak of the First World War. His father had emigrated to the USA some years before Nassos Daphnis arrived in New York. When the family followed, they had to wait two weeks for a ship, and during this time young Nassos became acquainted for the first time with the antique art of the Greek monuments and museums, and began to be interested in art and painting.

As the son of a Greek farmer, Nassos had a close relationship with nature. As a 7-year-old boy he accompanied his father to his orchard and wondered why trees bore only one kind of fruit, apples, pears, olives etc. His father wasn't able to give him an answer, but he taught him how to graft olive and peach trees. Young Nassos tried grafting apple scions onto pear trees etc., which of course proved a failure, so he experimented with grafting culture scions onto the wild forms of the same trees.


The florist takes up painting

Here in the great metropolis on the American East Coast Nassos Daphnis started work in his uncle's flower-shop, and so earned his living for the following 8 years, becoming familiar with the world of cultivated flowers. But making a living in his uncle's shop was not enough for the young Greek: he also began to paint. He taught himself the techniques of painting, and painted landscapes and flowers in a naïve manner.


The first contact with tree peonies

By his own account, it was through painting that fate showed him the way to tree peonies. In 1938 he exhibited his pictures in the Contemporary Art Gallery in New York. His friend, Stephen Bourgeois, an art historian, took the Gratwicks to this exhibition. William Gratwick was a well-known peony cultivator, and he invited young Daphnis to his peony nursery in Pavilion, a small town in the north of New York State. The young man gladly accepted the invitation and in spring 1939 he went to Pavilion. After a long drive he saw for the first time numerous Japanese tree peonies in full bloom.


In 1984, 46 years later, he noted:

...In those days (1938), the trip from New York to Pavilion took at least 10 hours. I arrived late in the evening, so it wasn't until the next morning that I had a chance to walk around the grounds. Bill Gratwick and I were strolling down the long driveway when suddenly my breath was taken by the incredible color of rows of tree peonies in full bloom.

I was familiar with all types of cultivated flowers from having worked for seven or eight years in my uncle's flower shop in New York. But in all that time, I had never seen blossoms like these. Fascinated by their beauty, I asked Bill Gratwick what they were. Tree peonies from Japan, he replied, and he began to tell me how he had gotten the plants. Some he had imported from Japan; some he had grown from seed. All were part of a collection of rare plants he was raising at the nursery he then maintained at the Pavilion estate.

His first impulse was to catch the beauty of these flowers by painting them, and from 1939 to 1942 he went to Pavilion every spring to paint tree peonies in the Gratwick Nursery.

...As a painter, my first impulse was to capture the beauty and elegance of these flowers by doing portraits of each variety. At that time, the Gratwicks were growing about 110 varieties of tree peonies, each of which had been selected for the beauty and perfection of its petal arrangement, color, shape, foliage and length of stem. I did paint a few of the varieties, some singly and others in arrangements. This continued for several years, as I came back each spring until 1942, when I was inducted into the Army...

In 1942 he joined the army, travelling the full length of Italy from south to north, but he was dismissed in 1945. In spring 1946 he stayed again in Gratwick's Nursery, but now he felt the urge not only to paint tree peonies but to create new varieties himself.


The basis of the breeding work

Nassos Daphnis began his intensive breeding work which was to last 50 years. Like his predecessors Victor Lemoine and Louis Henry, the two French pioneers in the breeding of Lutea hybrids, Nassos Daphnis wanted to combine the beauty of the Moutan forms from Japan with the vitality and the colors of Paeonia lutea and Paeonia delavayi. The two Frenchmen of course did not have the great genetic variety of parent plants at their disposal that Daphnis found at Gratwick Nursery. They used pollen of heavy double Chinese Moutan forms, and as parent plants they took the few Lutea forms then available,whose stalks were often weak and whose flowers drooped heavily into the foliage - "negative" qualities which are also found in the hybrids they created, e.g.


'Alice Harding'

'Madame Louis Henry'

'Souvenir du Prof. Maxime Cornu'

'L'Espérance' and

'La Lorraine'.

Although the word "negative" is often used, in fact these magnificent garden plants just need proper planting to stand out well. These historic Lutea hybrids from France are best planted in slightly raised positions, such as little hillocks or terraces, so that they can be looked at from below and their beauty can be fully admired.

It is interesting to know that these first old European Lutea hybrids are sold in Japan under the following names:




('Alice Harding')


('Souvenir du Prof. Maxime Cornu')




('La Lorraine')

This is not unproblematic since it leads to plants being sold under different names so that the buyer doesn't really know what is on offer. This was the problem even in past times. The English nursery Kelway imported Chinese cultivars of Paeonia lactiflora to Europe and sold them under English names. The same thing is said to happen in the USA where Chinese tree peonies imported from China are sold under American names.

It would be correct to sell Chinese and Japanese plants under their native names and then to add a translation in English as the nursery Golden Port International, 3675 Scotts Mill Run Duluth, GA 30096 U.S.A., which is specialized in Chinese tree- and herbaceous peonies, does.

Prof. Saunders was the first to carry on the work of the two French pioneers. In 1943 he wrote about these first French Lutea hybrids:

"In Southern China there is another wild shrubby peony which came into culture a little before 1890. It bears small flowers of a bright buttercup yellow color and is called Paeonia lutea. There is a closely related form, Paeonia delavayi, in which the blooms are dark mahogany red.

As soon as Paeonia lutea had reached the blooming stage in France where the first seedlings were raised the great Lemoine began to make crosses between this plant and the Chinese tree peonies. The results appeared after some years in the production of a grand new race of large-flowered peonies in which the predominant color was yellow. 'L'Espérance', 'La Lorraine', 'Souvenir du Prof. Maxime Cornu' - these were the first named varieties to be offered to the public. These plants opened up an entirely new vista in peony culture. M. Lemoine has continued his breeding experiments and has since 1906 introduced about a dozen new and striking novelties. But in spite of the exciting possibilities in this race of hybrids no work has been done in that direction in Europe in more recent years except by Lemoine himself, and all the hybrids that have been made in this country [the USA] are found in my own garden.

Here in this cross is a veritable gold mine for any plant breeder, and I hope it will not be long before at least a few intelligent hybridizers will devote some attention to these crosses. Their range of color includes clear yellows from pale to deep golden, yellows more or less stained with reddish, reds in many shades, deep maroons, whites, and among the newest of my own hybrids a few in which pale pink is laid on a background of yellow.

The flowers are often of very large size and vary from singles to full doubles. Their season is a little later than the tree peonies; these begin to bloom here in northern New York about May 25; the Lutea Hybrids begin about June 1st, and the ordinary Chinese herbaceous peonies about June 10.

Paeonia lutea is easily raised from seed and blooms on quite young plants. The tree peonies are not so easy, requiring some special care; but anyone who wants to develop a large collection of tree peonies can, if he knows how, get a group of magnificent varieties by growing seedlings of a fine strain. Only, what he saves in money he will spend in time, for tree peonies do not usually bloom until they have had five or six seasons of growth. But whether the bill is paid in money or time, a bed of fine tree peonies cannot fail to be worth all it has cost."

from "Tree peonies, an exciting adventure", A.P. Saunders, Bulletin of the APS, No. 92, December 1943


With this background Nassos Daphnis began his breeding work with tree peonies in the Gratwick Nursery in Pavilion, which was to last for years. Here he found a great genetic pool of culture-forms of Paeonia suffruticosa or Moutans mainly of Japanese origin, and many plants of Paeonia lutea. As pollen parents he chose beautiful Moutan forms of brilliant colors and shapes, lovely foliage and fine general structure. So as not to make the same mistake as his French predecessors he selected from the Paeonia lutea forms available seed parents with especially beautiful colors and stems that were as strong as possible. He also saw to it that the pollen parents didn't have too heavy double flowers, to prevent the flowers of the hybrids thus created from drooping into the foliage. The experience of his predecessors in the breeding of Lutea hybrids had taught him that the Moutan pollen is more receptive to the Lutea than the Lutea pollen on the Moutan; moreover the forms of the Moutan as a rule flower earlier than Paeonia lutea and Paeonia delavayi; so he began pollinating flowers of Paeonia lutea with pollen of Moutan forms.


A glance at the practical tasks of crossing

Here it is necessary to cast a glance at the technical side of crossing tree peonies. Nassos Daphnis collected pollen from the selected Moutan plants, and then dried it to conserve it and keep it germinable. There are several methods to do this. Nassos Daphnis dried the pollen under a light bulb and then kept it well sealed. When the mother plants of the Paeonia lutea were just about to open their flowers, the petals of the opening buds and the anthers, which were not out yet, were carefully removed. What was left of the flower buds were now only the carpels and the stigma, which at this stage is not yet ready to receive the pollen. So it is covered by a little bag to prevent possible cross-pollination by bees. Two or three days later the stigma shows that it is ready to receive the pollen by getting moist and secreting a liquid that makes it possible for the pollen grains to germinate and to fertilize the sex-cells in the carpels. The stigma that has been pollinated with the pollen of the selected father plant is then again covered by a bag. Warm weather favours the fertilization and seed-growth, while cool and rainy weather have an unfavourable influence on the process. Now the breeder just has to wait and hope that by September the seeds will have ripened. As soon as the carpels of the mother plant begin to open, the seeds are collected. Daphnis first disinfects them with fungicide, then places them in moist sand in a small tightly sealed plastic bag, and keeps them at room temperature for two to three months. The plastic bag is then placed in the fridge for another two to three months, when the seeds begin to germinate i.e. the first roots appear. When in March the first little leaves appear on the seedlings they are planted out in separate pots. Nassos Daphnis is careful to plant the young plants in such a way that the seed, with the two seed leaves which are the first nourishment for the young seedling, lies just a bit above the soil. This enables him later to cut off the seed leaves, since it seems that they are often attacked by fungi, whereupon the whole plant dies.

If one looks at the processes of nature, one sees that these processes are more or less identical: after the ripening of the seeds they drop on the ground, and live through a period of warmth which is mostly accompanied by late summer and autumn rains. In the following cold winter period the seeds germinate and in spring the first leaves appear. If you leave the seeds of tree peonies on to ripen in your garden, you will often find little seedlings round your plants in the following years. That happens quite frequently with Paeonia lutea and Paeonia delavayi. A lady who is a friend of mine has a whole bed of Paeonia delavayi full of dozens of small seedlings of that wonderful wild tree peony.


The breeder and the philosopher

So far we have covered only the technical aspects of Nassos Daphnis' 50 years of breeding work. For him the knowledge of the biological processes, the genetic connections and the practical breeding tasks are only the physical conditions of his work. What is just as important for him is the philosophical and cultural background.

In his studio on West Broadway, amidst paintings and painters tools, I spent some wonderful hours with a man who succeeded not only in expressing beauty with paints and brushes, but also in making it shine out in his peony breeding. Nassos Daphnis is not obsessed by the false ambition of many breeders to produce new uncommon and spectacular flowers (e.g. blue roses etc.), which are only too often questionable caricatures of nature. It is enough for him to perfect the original harmony and geometry or order of the peony flowers in his work. His flowers are to fill the spectator with feelings of calm, happiness and deep satisfaction. This beauty, however, has to be present within the spectator himself, otherwise he would not be able to recognize it. As Goethe so admirably put it:

"If the eye were not sun-like,
how could it ever see the sun?"

Nassos Daphnis is of the opinion that creating beauty gives the greatest satisfaction to the breeder. This beauty, however, must harmonize with nature; only then it radiates calm and happiness and can fill the spectator with these feelings. A plant is only then really beautiful, if nothing impairs this calm and harmony. In this respect the breeder must consider his creation as a whole, i.e. as well as thinking of creating a beautiful flower, he must consider the whole plant, its growing habit, leaves and structure. Perhaps this insight goes back to the early experience of the little farmer's boy in Greece who had to learn that he could not indiscriminately graft different sorts of fruits on one rootstock, but had to obey the laws of nature.

The ideal of harmony, geometry and symmetry of a flower also applies to the relationship of the center to the surrounding parts. The petals surround the center of the flower, which is the most important part of the plant, since it serves for reproduction and therefore for continuity of life. All of Nassos Daphnis' creations show a beautiful center which is surrounded by harmonious petals. The significance of the center or middle also finds its expression in his art - all his paintings circle round a fixed center.

I have known Nassos Daphnis as a modest man who draws no commercial profit from his creations, true to his philosophy that the greatest satisfaction for the breeder is creating beauty for the joy of mankind. In the course of his long life he has grown 500 seedlings, of which he had only about 50 registered as new varieties, as he was very exacting in his creations. For him to register a plant as a variety, it had not only to meet his demands of natural harmony and geometry (or symmetry), but also to be a real novelty. Moreover, he would observe a new plant for years before registering it.


The names of the Daphnis-hybrids

When Nassos Daphnis named a creation of his, the name had to harmonize with the flower: 


In his 'Gauguin' the spectator is struck by the strong colors that are characteristic of the French painter Paul Gauguin, just like in his painting "Contes barbares", 1902.

Paeonia 'Gauguin' (Lutea hybrid)

Photo: Nassos Daphnis

'Demetra' with its full golden yellow petals with a red margin symbolizes the fertility of the Greek goddess of earth, Demetra.

Paeonia 'Demetra' (Lutea hybrid)

Photo: Nassos Daphnis

In 'Persephone' with its soft, light yellow, almost transparent petals the delicacy and virginity of Demetra's daughter Persephone finds an adequate expression.

Paeonia 'Persephone' (Lutea hybrid)

Photo: Nassos Daphnis

In 'Redon' we meet the vivid pastel tints of the floral paintings ("Flowers in a vase" ) of Odilon Redon. The huge flowers blossom on the same plant either in a pale pink with a bluish tint or peach colored.

Paeonia 'Redon' (Lutea hybrid)

Photo: Nassos Daphnis

With strong dark-red flowers 'Hephestos', the Greek god of fire and forge Hephaistos manifests himself. In the middle of the double dark red flower the yellow center of the golden stamens shine like flashes. 'Hephestos' is a first-class variety!

Paeonia 'Hephestos' (Lutea hybrid)

Photo: Nassos Daphnis


The various Daphnis-hybrids

His first successful cross, which he produced in 1946, blossomed for the first time 10 years later in a beautiful pink, but unfortunately it died after the first flowering. In the first few years he obtained only about 5 to 20 seeds a year from his crosses. This is not surprising, since Moutan and Paeonia lutea can't easily be crossed with each other. Of those seedlings from the first years, only a few survived the eight to ten years that it takes to cultivate a full-grown tree peony to the stage where the flower has stabilized.

The hybrids named after figures of Greek mythology are illstrated by parts of Greek and Roman literature. Links guide to corresponding pictures of Greek vases.

Walter Good
Wettsteinstrasse 6
CH-8332 Russikon
Switzerland, 2000


+41 (0) 44 954 12 06
+41 (0) 44 954 13 23