Our Family's History With Peonies
Peonies have been a tradition in my family for over eighty years. My grandfather, Ralph Fitch Turner Sr. started collecting them as he traveled around New England in the early 1920s. His father was originally from South Bristol, Maine. He continued to collect and cultivate them until he died in 1968. At that time he had a field about an acre in size that held over 2,500 plants. For him, the variety names were never important. He sold them as cut flowers to florists around the Providence, Rhode Island area were he lived. He categorized them only as red, white, and pink; and put together bundles of long and short stems for the florists. Then, as now, the florists were most concerned about straight stems and perfect blooms. For me the fragrance is at least as important, if not more so. When you set a dozen of these beautiful ancient flowers in a vase the whole house fills with that one-of-a-kind smell that I grew up with and you know there are peonies in the house.
The year after my grandfather died, my father decided to let the field bloom for the first time ever. I was thirteen at the time and I still remember being amazed at the site and smell. These three faded pictures don't even begin to do it justice, but they are the only record I have of that amazing two weeks in June of 1969.
Unfortunately no one in the family was in a position to pick up the tradition until my sister Denise and her husband split and moved the field in 1988. Lisa was eight months pregnant with Maggie and we were not well equipped, but we had a field so we took what turned out to be about 800 plants and stuck them in the ground. My grandfather's field had deteriorated considerably by the time we got our act together. Conventional wisdom says that peonies require little care once they are established. While it is true that they will survive and bloom without care, they will not thrive. Our field survived on benign neglect until 1996 when we got serious about cultivation and fertilization. Over the next few years Lisa and I added several hundred plants of modern varieties bred and cultivated for cut flowers. In 2002 my brother in law decided to sell his business, so we acquired about 1,000 more of my grandfathers plants which are in propagation beds and will be set into our production fields soon. This is a small sample of the cut flowers we harvested this year. We store them in our walk-in cooler and the wholesaler picks them up at the farm.
Peony Roots in Mythology
Botanists today consider the the peony to be related to a family of its own, Paeonaceae. The name comes from a mythical physician Paeon. Paeon was turned into a flower by the god Pluto to protect him from his teacher who was jealous of his healing ability. Ancients recognized its uniqueness among vegetation and believed it to have healing powers for headache, convulsions, nightmares, and liver problems. If it is true that peonies planted by the door will keep evil spirits away, then Maine must be relatively free of evil spirits since most people seem to have at least a few in their yard.
The Technical Biology Stuff
The genus paeonia is divided into three sections, moutan (including tree peonies), onaepia (native to western North America), and paeon. This third section, paeon, includes the herbaceous species native to Europe, Africa, and Asia; and is further divided into two subsections, twelve groups, and about 39 species. Most common herbaceous ornamental peonies originate from the lactiflora species which originated in Siberia, Mongolia, Tibet, and China. Lactiflora is one of only three peony species that can have more than one flower per stem. These laterals are a time consuming nuisance to cut flower growers since they must be removed by hand to ensure the best quality terminal bud. The majority of modern peonies originated from three varieties brought to England from China: Fragrens, pink. 1805; Whitleyi, white. 1808; and Humei, dark pink. 1810. These varieties are still commonly found throughout northern areas of Asia, Europe, and North America. When we hear the term hybrid with respect to peonies it most often means a cross of a variety of one species with a variety of another species. There are literally thousands of registered varieties of herbaceous ornamental peonies. This may be another reason my grandfather never tried to precisely categorize his collection. These older unknown varieties are simply called heirlooms. Many people believe that the most fragrant varieties originated before the 1950s, though the modern varieties we have are very fragrant.
The peony flower is incredible in its appearance, fragrance, and variety. The basic parts of the flower: petal, stamen, and carpel (pistil) vary to form five distinct types of flowers. These are the single, Japanese, anemone, semi-double, and double. The Japanese and anemone are frequently combined in growers catalogs and many companies offer large doubles referred to as bombs, but these five types are recognized by the American Peony Society. Each of the flower types described below can be found in the full variety of colors, heights, and maturity/bloom times.
Single - the single flower consists of the basic flower parts in their most recognizable form. A ring of not less than five petals surrounding a center cluster of distinct stamens with carpels at the very center. Unfortunately we have no photos of our very few singles to show you at this time.
Japanese - This is where it begins to get interesting. There are the usual five or more petals surrounding stamens bearing abortive anthers that take many different shapes and colors. These transformed stamens are called stamenodes. We have no Japanese varieties among our 2,500 peony plants.
Anemone - Further along the transformation continuum are the anemone type which have the usual 5 or more petals, but they surround a cluster of stamens fully transformed into small narrow petals called petalodes. These petalodes are always a blend of the flower's predominant color with a tinge of the yellow of a stamen.
Semi-Double - These flowers have the usual 5 or more petals called guard petals and a center of broad petals with distinct stamen intermixed or clustered at the center. In these flowers the carpels may be transformed into petals or not.
Doubles - These softball sized or larger flowers also have the five or more guard petals, but in this case they surround stamens and carpels more or less fully transformed into petals making a fully hemispherical flower.
So that's the basics of how we got them and what they are. Our fields will not fully mature into productive commercial fields for a few more years. A long strange trip from 1969, and even longer from the 1920's. We'll add more information to the web site as requested and as we continue to figure out just exactly what we've inherited.