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Peonies: From tiny buds to sweet-smelling, magnificent blooms

“The fattest and most scrumptious of all flowers, a rare fusion of fluff and majesty, the peony is now coming into bloom,” wrote Henry Mitchell (1923-93), columnist for the Washington Post.

Production of the spring floral showstopper is in full swing — emerging slowly from small, tight, hard buds come layer upon layer of frilly petals that develop into large, lush blossoms of fragrant beauty.

PEONY-BOUQUETSwollen to their fullest, these peonies make an elegant bouquet for any wedding.Peonies are some of the best selling wholesale flowers for weddings and events.

“Popularity has spiraled upward in the last three years,” said Lenny Walker, director of national accounts for KBC Direct, a division of Kennicott Bros. Co. in Alsip, IL.

“Supermarkets tell us that they really like peonies. These novelty flowers have a high value and a very high level of demand at the consumer level,” Walker said.

He told The Produce News that peonies were the foundation of Kennicott Bros. when the company first began in 1881.

“They planted the first field of peonies in Glenview, IL, back in the1850s,” said Walker. “Today, the company’s domestic production is over one million stems and production in Chile is roughly 250,000 stems, with about 35 percent of peony sales going through its mass market division and the remaining 65 percent going through wholesale operations.”

The recent long, cool growing season is yielding some of the best quality peonies in years from Kennicott’s five farms in Illinois, Wisconsin and upper Michigan, according to its “Peony Hotline,” which offers customers a year-round peony source.

Shlomo Danieli, owner of Blooming of Beloit in Beloit, WI, told The Produce News he was one of the first to import peonies from outside North America in 1996, which greatly expanded the availability of peonies beyond the short domestic season and also increased market demand.

“Peony crops usually bloom for about two to four weeks, so by growing them in different parts of the United States, from North Carolina to Alaska, the peony season can be extended from April through September,” said Danieli. “With the addition of imports from December to April from Chile, Israel, Holland, France and Italy, you can extend the peony season to about 10 months of the year.”

Kevin Coleman, owner of KCK Farms in Dayton, OR, told The Produce News he’s been growing peonies for 10 years and cuts between 700,000 to 800,000 stems per year, which he sells to the mass market in Oregon and California, including Trader Joe’s.

“Demand is strong, especially if you have the right varieties,” said Coleman. “A lot of mass markets don’t have access to peonies and maybe that’s the reason they’ve never tried them, but I encourage them to try them because the sales will be there — we’ve proven that with Trader Joe’s.”

Peonies are available in varieties of single, semi-double, or double blossoms and in shades of pink, peach, coral, white, cream, yellow, crimson and multi-colored.

In floral designs, peonies are used as a large mass flower and since blossoms can open to over five inches across; peonies are an arrangement in themselves.

“They are an incredible flower,” said Sue DeMuth, manager of floral merchandising for SpartanNash in Edina, MN. “And the best part of the hybrids is that they have longevity and no ants.”

Over 61 species of peonies occur naturally in the wild, growing only in the northern hemisphere, with some plants thriving for over 100 years. The peony is one of the longest-used flowers in Eastern culture and is a traditional floral symbol of China.

The peony is named after Paeon, a student of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine and healing. Zeus saved Paeon from the jealous wrath of Asclepius by turning him into the peony flower.

In the language of flowers during Victorian times, the peony symbolized bashfulness because mischievous nymphs were said to hide in its petals. Today, peonies represent good fortune, prosperity and a happy marriage.