The more than 1,000 fragrant peony blossoms in the Formal Garden at the Lincolns’ mansion draw visitors from far and wide. The garden was designed by President Lincoln’s granddaughter, Jessie Lincoln, for her mother, Mary Harlan Lincoln in 1908.
Archival documents suggest that Robert Lincoln collaborated with his daughter in bringing the garden to life. The pattern is that of a stained glass window; the privet representing the leading, the flowers the glass. As a young woman, Jessie had seen such windows in the cathedrals of Europe as well as the parterre design in gardens.
Proof that Hildene’s are heirloom peonies, came with the discovery of correspondence from Robert Lincoln dated November 9, 1905 and bearing the following directive, “There is at the express office, Manchester Depot, a box addressed to me from Paris, France. It contains peony roots.” This was proof positive that the peonies were more than one hundred years old, making them centennial cultivars.
Research also revealed that while Mr. Lincoln handled the financing, it was daughter Jessie, who was primarily responsible for the design, placing orders and planting the garden. Jessie Lincoln’s plant list, which included many peonies, further confirmed the age of the garden. The prestigious American Peony Society designated two of Hildene’s peonies, "Hildene" and "Jessie Lincoln," as previously unidentified cultivars. The research that led to this honor took place in the Observation Garden located behind the the Welcome Center.
Hildene gardeners do not use synthetic pesticides and avoid the use of chemicals whenever possible. Guided by an Integrated Pest Management Program (IPM), the goal is to create healthy plants in healthy gardens. In addition to not relying on chemicals and applying compost in the formal garden, more plants are intentionally left over the winter to create habitat and food for winter birds and insects.
Among the ornamental plants in the formal garden, you will find flowers especially attractive to bees and butterflies.