A Passion For Peonies
Laverne Dunsmore laughs when he says, “Whenever you think of Minnesota, you think of water, you think of peonies, you think of lilacs, and you think of mosquitoes – not necessarily in that order!”
When most people think of Laverne and his wife, Barbara, peonies are top of mind. The Dunsmores have 8 acres of more than 400 varieties of herbaceous and Itoh hybrid peonies in production on their property in Delano, Minnesota. Their fields are a festival of colorful blooms, including white, yellow, coral, red, maroon, and many variations of pink.
The color only lasts a few weeks each spring. “There’s a sense of anticipation every year. It’s one of the things we love about these plants,” Barbara says. “Peonies are also tough as nails. We don’t have to irrigate them in the fields. We keep the weeds down, sure, but peonies aren’t like other perennials we have to constantly mess with. If it were a lot more labor intensive, we wouldn’t do it.”
Quite the show
The highlight of the Dunsmores’ growing season is an annual free field show, where the collector and the curious alike wonder at the splendor of so many varieties. “There’s not another peony farm in the country next to 2 million people, so it’s a huge event,” Laverne says. (Delano is west of the Twin Cities.) “Usually the first day, there are people waiting at 9:00 a.m. The passionate collectors choose their plants and set them aside, then they go to the fields.”
When asked why people attend, Laverne says, “Most people are looking for some authenticity in their lives. You might go to an apple orchard in the fall or maybe pick raspberries, but to walk through a huge field of flowers – where else are you going to find this?” Visitors can stay as long as they like, “and everyone leaves with big smiles on their faces,” says Barbara. “That’s when we know we’ve made a difference.”
The peony originated in China and was popularized in Europe in the 19th century before homesteaders carried various cuttings with them to farms across the Midwest. Minnesota became the hub of North American peony production, starting with the first nursery in the state, Brand Peony Farm, in the 1860s. It remained a vital mail-order business for more than 100 years before closing its doors.
Laverne, who has a master’s degree in biology and plant biology, purchased his first two plants from the former owner of the company in 1981, and he says this was instrumental education. “The owner observed seedlings for 20 to 30 years to decide if they were even good enough to be introduced and named. That doesn’t happen anymore,” Laverne says. “I have varieties in my fields I’ve watched for about 10 years. I have to find out if they’re better than what already exists.”
Hardy and strong
Peonies thrive in cooler climates, relying on long winter dormancy for spring rejuvenation. They’re hardy plants and strong bloomers. Most garden experts agree that once you plant peonies, you should leave them alone. There’s no need to divide them, much less fuss over them. Peonies add to the quintessential identity of the countryside and live for decades, with some cultivars lasting up to 100 years.
“The most emotional thing about peonies that attracts me to them is they’re the only plants I can name that transcend multiple generations,” Laverne says. “I have visitors who point to a particular plant and say, ‘I remember that on my grandmother’s farm,’ and they get tears in their eyes.” The couple hears hundreds of stories from people with strong attachments to the blossoms. “I think it’s because it’s an old-fashioned, comforting flower,” Barbara says.
A passion for peonies
The Dunsmores share a strong devotion to nature. Barbara owns Countryside Gardens, a garden design, installation, and maintenance business. After 25 years in university education and landscaping, Laverne is now dedicated to the peony farm full time. Laverne jokes, “I can say this in front of my wife. Since we both have a strong horticultural background, what we agonize over in our relationship is what plant should be placed where.”
After buying their 40-acre property, they spent a dozen years regenerating natural habitat, planting everything from native grasses to tamarack trees. Their land attracts hundreds of migrating trumpeter swans and sandhill cranes.
Barbara says she enjoys the peony farm because Laverne does. “It’s really his passion,” she says. He says he first chose this flower to study because of his connection to the former owner of Brand Peony Farm. Some of the cultivars in his fields aren’t grown anywhere else in the world. “So it’s more a sense of preserving history. I don’t want to see these flowers become extinct.” In addition to new hybrids he’s developing, his fields contain many heritage varieties, some dating back to the mid-1800s.
“The peony was the backbone of the old-fashioned garden,” Laverne says. “Maybe that’s why people are so mesmerized by it. It has endurance and dependability you rarely find in any other plant.”
Laverne and Barbara Dunsmore host an annual peony field show. The event is usually held the first two weekends in June. However, early and late springs can alter the timing. Visitors can tour the 8 acres of peonies in bloom, featuring more than 400 varieties, and place orders for their favorites. The Dunsmores test all varieties three to five years in the field before shipping to ensure everyone receives a root with sufficient food reserves for a healthy start.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more peony show information, including a descriptive list of varieties offered for fall shipment.
Laverne and Barbara Dunsmore
10602 Fenner Avenue SE
Delano, MN 55328
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