Kelways are renowned for their peonies, a reputation that goes back to the earliest years of the nursery’s existence.
James Kelway first tried to improve the peony in 1864, using P. officinalis and P. corallina (now known as P. mascula). His sister had collected P. corallina from Steep Holm, an island in the Bristol Channel. His son William claimed that his enthusiasm for peonies had been sparked by the sight of ‘the lads and maidens of the countryside bedecked with the fine old Paeonia officinalis at a village wake, and he determined at once to procure as many species as possible from all parts of the world to raise up a new and glorious race.’
Twenty years later their catalogue listed 250 varieties, 104 of which were Kelway’s new introductions. They helped spread the popularity of peonies to the USA by exporting crowns and offering prize medals at large flower shows in New York and Boston.
Early peony catalogues from 1916 and 1917
Monet was said to have ordered peonies from Kelways for his garden at Giverny. Kelways were regular exhibitors at the Paris International Exhibitions, and had won a gold medal at the Exhibition of 1889.
In 1896 Kelways received a much-coveted letter from Balmoral, expressing admiration for the peonies that Kelways had sent to the Queen. They never achieved the honour of a Royal Warrant, but this was the next best thing - they could show that they had royal endorsement.
Letter from Queen Victoria’s Private Secretary, 14 June 1896
James’ grandson James (1871-1952) took a special interest in peonies and greatly expanded the breeding programme. He was in charge of the ‘Peony Bible’ which recorded all the varieties. In 1910 there were about 20 acres of peonies, five of which were under fruit trees.
The development of improved varieties of peony took many years. James Kelway described the process in an article in 1929:
‘The raising of seedlings is a slow process. We keep the seed in soil for a year before sowing to soften the hard covering. Then it takes four or five years before we can judge the flower, and to make a small stock another four or five seasons. It is frequently fifteen or twenty years before a seedling makes its first appearance in a catalogue, and so the cost of production is high. The French raisers are right to ask £10 or £15 for a good novelty. The American raisers ask fifty to one hundred dollars.’
In 1928 the American Peony Society stated: 'The firm of Kelway & Son, in England ... must always be given credit for having originated some of the finest peonies that have come from any source. Lady Alexandra Duff, Baroness Schroeder, James Kelway, Kelway’s Glorious.’ They were just as enthusiastic in 1942, according to Kelway’s, when they conducted a poll of their members as to which was the ‘most magnificent peony’, and Kelway’s Glorious topped the list.
Paeonia Kelway’s Glorious and its RHS Award of Merit, presented in 1935
As the 20th century wore on, peonies gradually eclipsed gladioli as Kelways’ trademark product. The huge displays of massed gladioli spikes at RHS shows were a thing of the past. Peonies became fashionable, and Kelways claimed the credit, with some justice.