By Jen Bakken
For Laverne Dunsmore, the peony is a plant of passion and far more than just a pretty flower it’s a way of life.
“The peonies have such an emotional tie to Minnesota,” said Laverne Dunsmore. “I have never seen a perennial that evokes such emotion in people that transcends all these generations.”
Just outside of Delano, Laverne has six-acres of peonies in production, with more than 400 cultivators, including many popular lactifloras, herbaceous, and Itoh hybrids.
In June, Laverne and his wife, Barbara Dunsmore, invited visitors to their farm for their sixth annual peony field show.
During the field show, guests caught a glimpse of their peony breeding efforts a continuation of the quad hybrid program.
They are currently one of the largest retail growers of the fern leaf peony, a species that was brought west with early settlers.
The Dunsmores first became interested in peonies during the early 1980s while running vegetable seed trials at the former Brand peony farm in Faribault.
Also at this time, they discovered another nearby two-acre peony field, and started collecting all the peonies they could get their hands on.
Acquiring some of the best varieties, they planted in several sites until 1993, when they purchased their 40-acre farm off Wright County Road 17 south of in Delano.
They now sell peonies through high volume events such as the Minneapolis Farmer’s Market and their peony field shows.
Their business, Countryside Gardens, is actually two operations. Barbara runs a garden design, installation, and maintenance service from April through November with a staff of eight to 12 that compliments Laverne’s peony business.
“The peony business is my thing,” he said. “And Barbara has her thing. It’s all we do, and that’s more than enough.”
In an article Laverne wrote for Lake Minnetonka Living Magazine, he told readers to be aware there are more choices than red, white and pink, and peony lovers can enjoy blooms from early May until late June by selecting varieties that bloom at different times.
He notes that peonies have a strong tradition in the Minnesota garden that dates back to early settlement times, and are still planted today for their beauty, hardiness, ease of care and dependability. This is also why one can still find peonies today next to old falling down barns and dilapidated homesteads.
Though generally easily cared for, peony farming is hard physical work, but Laverne still gets excited about them even when they are not blooming.
“When I dig them in the fall and look at the roots, it’s a whole new season for me,” he said. “Some I can tell which variety they are just by the roots I love it.”
Laverne is also doing some of his own hybridizing, which he isn’t sure anyone else in the world is working on.
He explains that most regular garden peonies come from one species of peonies the lacto floral. Some of the real vibrant pinks and coral varieties usually have two species in their blood lines.
“What I’m working on has four species in their bloodline. They are called quad hybrids,” he said. “But, it takes about 20 years before you are able to introduce them to the market and another 10 to 15 years before they are readily available.”
Currently, he has about five advanced ones, and thinks he has one that will shock the peony world. Its peach color and dark peach eye in the middle makes it uniquely beautiful.
As for buying peonies, Laverne feels that some of what is on the market is substandard.
“Many times, these plants can change hands four or five times before it ends up in consumer’s hands,” he said. “They can be mislabeled, and their roots may be too young to bloom the first year.”
On his peony farm, he grows them, typically, a minimum of three years, digs them up in the fall and instead of the standard division of three to five eyes, they may have six to seven eyes. Because they have really big roots, they have enough energy to take off right away during the first year.
A walk through his six acres reveals many old varieties, some dating back to the 1850s, and some very new, which won’t be introduced to the market for up to 15 years.
Some of the varieties have a unique history to them, and Laverne can tell many of the stories behind their names.
In 2002, he lost three-acres of peonies due to the record rain and flooding that year. There were varieties lost that no one else had and are now extinct.
“We lost it all; I was ready to give up,” he said. “But the peonies in our display gardens saved us.”
All that is seen today is the result of their work since 2002, and now the Dunsmores are on the verge of being one of the top four peony growers in the world.