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 guide to see what other flowers may be blooming during your visit, and follow its social media for updates on the peonies.
— That said, most of the published bloom time information describes what happens during an average Central Illinois spring. The spring of 2023 has bloom times running a little later than normal, with best guesses for peak peony time to be closer to Memorial Day than Mother’s Day this year.
— 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 parking lot of the McCraw Family Visitors Center, which officially opened to the public in March 2023 after a year-long renovation. The Visitor Center is now open daily, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., and is an unstaffed, self-guided resource with maps, displays, and restrooms.
— 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.
— The grounds at Allerton are FREE to explore, although donations are encouraged. If your family is interested in some of the paid events at Allerton, many of them are planned to coincide with peak bloom time in the Peony Garden. Check Allerton’s Event Schedule to learn more.
— Thanks to ongoing accessibility efforts at Allerton, the Peony Garden now boasts an accessible path, 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.
The immediate future of garden improvements at Allerton is unclear. The public facing areas of its website currently have many broken links, with some information completely missing at the time of this article’s publication (including previously available details about the Bulb Garden and extensive resources for the Peony Garden). We hope this communication hiccup will soon be resolved.
Ambitious pre-pandemic plans to build an elaborate children’s area in the “Forgotten Garden” at Allerton now seem to be on hold. A multi-year fundraising campaign — “ALL IN For Allerton” — officially ended in June 2022 with a total of $8.8 million raised. Official statements made at that time indicated more modest goals for outdoor improvements: expansion of programming space in the Artisan Village, a Wandering Woods accessible path off the Main Parking Lot, and a dedicated bicycle trail making the list.
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. If the nursery tag says it is resistant to powdery mildew, so much the better. 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.
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