Allerton’s Peony Garden showcases nearly 70 named varieties and thousands of blooms for families to enjoy in the spring
Owned by the University of Illinois, the Allerton Park and Retreat Center in Monticello is billed as one of the Seven Wonders of Illinois. Whoever makes these lists probably visited Allerton during the month of May, when the Peony Garden is at the peak of its flowery magnificence.
Robert Allerton and his family built and maintained the Allerton estate and its gardens, mostly during the 1920s and ’30s, before deeding the property to the University of Illinois in 1946. The peony, already featured in its own garden, was supposedly one of Robert’s favorite flowers. The Peony Garden was revived in the early 2000s following a period of neglect, and thanks to continued financial support from donors it thrives today and is nationally renowned among peony lovers.
Know before you go
— The outdoor areas at Allerton are open most days from 8 a.m.-sunset.
— Peonies most commonly bloom in Illinois around Mother’s Day in mid-May, but the multiple varieties (almost 70!) planted at Allerton generate almost continual bloom from late April all the way into June. Check Allerton’s handy bloom guides, here and here, to see what other flowers may be blooming during your visit.
— That said, most of the bloom time information published on Allerton’s website describes what happens during an average Central Illinois spring. The spring of 2022 has been so wet and cool that bloom times are running later than normal. If you’re eager to time your drive to Monticello around maximum peony bloom, tune into one of Allerton’s Facebook Lives (Thursday mornings at 9 a.m. starting May 12) to monitor the situation.
— Other areas of Allerton’s grounds are probably more appealing to little ones, either for the fanciful statues, the long gravel paths, or the uninterrupted swaths of grass. The Peony Garden will appeal mostly to budding botanists (ha!), although the garden does feature one famous sculpture, a replica of the Louvre’s “Three Graces” by Germain Pilon. If you come to Allerton with young companions, we advise you subject them to the Peony Garden first, before you break out the snacks and let them loose to explore elsewhere.
— For many years, adventurous visitors could view the Peony Garden from above (!) on a raised walkway. To the relief of most parents, access to that wall has been closed for decades due to disrepair.
— Closest parking to the Peony Garden is located off Old Timber Road, in the Visitor’s Center Parking Lot. The Visitor’s Center is unstaffed and currently undergoing renovation; when open, it is a self-guided resource with maps, displays, and restrooms. There is no admission charge to Allerton, although donations are encouraged.
— The Greenhouse Café at Allerton is located in the Allerton Greenhouse at 515 Old Timber Road and is operated by Blue Dragonfly Catering. It offers classic café refreshments, homemade baked goods, fresh and fun sandwiches, and unique salads. For hours and menu, click here. Closed on Mondays.
— Thanks to more than 400 donors, an accessible path has now been installed, making it easier for all to navigate the Peony Garden.
— Adjacent to the Peony Garden, the Bulb Garden offers a similar abundance of blooms per step, if that’s your thing. Renewal of this area began in 2016 and the garden is maintained in memory of U of I professor Mark E. Roszkowski. Its design uses principles of landscape architecture from Robert Allerton’s time, and uses both bulbs and annual plants to ensure continuous blooming throughout the season. So even if you miss the blooming window of the Peony Garden, there will still be plenty of floral beauty at Allerton for you to enjoy.
Perhaps Allerton’s gardens will inspire you to plant a peony or two of your own. As perennials, peonies reliably come back every year. Some peonies happily last decades in the same spot. They thrive in full sun to part shade, prefer an area with well-drained soil, and stay largely disease-free if you remove the dead foliage in the fall. Taller varieties can benefit from some anti-flopping support (like those green rings people sometimes stake above them in the spring); otherwise just leave them alone. Choose a fragrant variety if you can — they smell heavenly — and if the nursery tag says it is resistant to powdery mildew, so much the better.
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