“Peony Harvest” by Erwin A. Thompson

Susan Tweit Old Home Place Peony, white
Photo by Susan Tweit. Susan calls this “Old Home Place” peony because it came from her mother-in-law’s childhood home in Possum Valley, Arkansas. “It’s doing fine here at 7,000 feet in the southern Rocky Mountains, but sometimes I wonder if it doesn’t wonder how it got here!” Susan says.

by Erwin A. Thompson

Grandpa Riehl made most of his living by selling things that he grew. He changed his crops as the demand and the price changed. I heard stories in my childhood of acres of strawberries, and the two “berry sheds” along the road were still there at that time although no longer used for their original purpose for collecting the berries from the pickers and giving them a ticket that meant they had picked a quart of berries and would be paid for it whenever they wanted to “settle”.

When I was about four all of the “East Bottom” was in melons one year. I remember Grandpa going through the field with a wagon and picking a sideboard load of cantaloupe to take to Alton to sell.

When other people started to raise asparagus, Grandpa quit. He predicted that the crop would get so it hardly paid wages and his predictions have been followed by fact. He had pioneered the crop in the area, suffered the hardships of the person who leads the way and got out while there was still a fair profit. Stray plants of asparagus are still to be found around the place where they continue to survive despite years of being plowed out, thrown in ditches and choked by weeks.

The cottages were built for summer occupancy by the “boarders,” but the basements were built for winter use. Wood ceilings, and insulation as was available at that time (lime plaster and several inches of cinders between the ceiling of the basement and the floor of the house) kept out the cold winds.

A stove long enough to burn cord wood was in each basement and sweet potato bins were built so the warmth would circulate between them. I heard it mentioned at one time that there were five thousand bushels of sweet potatoes in those two basements. I remember the sorting that took place to find the big ones without blemishes that would bring a premium price down to the little fellows the size of a clothes pin that would be planted in the hot beds and produce the plants for next season. I liked to eat them raw. We didn’t get a whole lot of fresh fruit in the winter and those raw small potatoes tasted pretty good! The aunts, of course were horrified when they discovered what I was eating.

Gradually, Grandpa Riehl’s interest turned to peonies. The Decoration Day market was the thing that was the key to our success. The climate conditions were such that ours ripened about the middle of May in normal seasons and the years when the season was late there were many acres of peonies in the north part of the state that didn’t ripen and the demand was much better. The excitement of the harvest season with probably ten acres of flowers coming ready to bloom, needing to be cut at just the right stage, and packed and shipped and kept cool so they wouldn’t heat and spoil. Some times we had all the available man, woman, and kid power in the neighborhood working to keep ahead of nature’s processes of ripening.

It took a variety of skills and a lot of stamina to make the harvest. Sometimes the weather was so hot our bare feet would nearly burn in the dust. The roads were all dirt and often the dust would be over our bare toes. The field were clean cultivated until after harvest and this would be either dust, mud or hard packed earth after the rains with constant foot traffic.

The cutters had to decide whether a particular bud was ready to cut. The variety had a lot to do with this fact as some would open quicker than others.

There were different characteristics of each variety that he had to know in order to do a good job. The cutter cut a handful, holding them between his fingers so not to break the stems, and then gave them to the carrier. We carriers were usually barefoot with straw hats to shade us from the sun.

Mostly it was a hot job but sometimes it was a wet one. I can remember a fire in the shop stove with ten or twelve wet men and kids warming up and drying out. Some had extra clothes and would hang a wet pair of overalls up to dry and wear a drier pair. We had the usual raincoats and boots, but the contact with the wet bushes got our knees wet no matter what we did. Some of the men wore hip boots, mostly the fishermen and duck hunters but these were expensive to buy and heavy to wear all day.

We carriers always got our arms wet from the contact with the heavy armloads of wet flowers and the water running from our wrists to our elbows as we carried them.

In the packing shed the women stripped the bottom leaves off and bunched them in bunches of 13. They always referred to this count as a “bakers dozen”. They were then carried into the inner basement (converted from sweet potato storage) and piled on racks to cool. This was very important, as if they weren’t cool when they were packed they would “heat” and spoil on the trip to Chicago or Cleveland.

We tried shipping to many places, but these were our two best markets. For some reason that I never understood St. Louis was very poor. The wholesaler that we shipped to would make a determination of what to do with the flowers when he got them. We always marked the boxes with crayon with the number of bunches and the variety.

Sometimes we got a telegram from Joseph Foerster in Chicago “Market is good, ship all the open flowers you have.” These were the ones that had slipped by the cutters and bloomed in the field. Much of the time these were a loss once they got past the stage where they could be stored.

Sometimes it was the other way: “Don’t ship anything but the best”. Sometimes we threw out flowers already bunched, or maybe decided to gamble with them and try a new market; hoping to at least make the express. Sometimes these ventures were successful and others very disappointing.

I recall Foerster’s report after Decoration Day containing such items as “Dumped 6 boxes of Jules Elie, no market for them.” Sometimes they would hold the better ones for later sale but peonies are traditionally a Decoration Day flower and there is very little call for them either before or after that period.

This is one of the many things that did not keep pace with our inflated economy. In Grandpa’s time a premium bunch of peonies might sometimes bring as much as a dollar wholesale; less the express, commission and storage that was still a fair net price to go on. Cutters then got about $2.50 a day depending on their skill and reliability, and carriers got a dollar a day. The shed help was somewhere in between. When we finally quit the business after World War II the price was maybe 50 cents, and wages would have been six or seven dollars a day if you could have found somebody interested in working for a week or two.

Time marches on. Artificial flowers have almost taken the place of fresh cut flowers on the graves. New varieties have been developed which were almost demanded by the florists. We tried them some, but the quality was not as good as the old standby’s and they did not stand the handling nearly as well.

Like the asparagus, we have yet a few hardy peony plants along the roadside and in the ditches which remain as a living monument to past history.

The old names are still in my memory as well as the color and characteristics. At fourteen I knew more about the cutting than most of the hired help, particularly the seasonal ones who did not come every year. But they wouldn’t let me “cut” because they could hire cutters but not carriers

Rachel, a beautiful dark red.

Queen Victoria, a soft white with pink shadings. This was the early version, a good keeper and easy to handle. So it was too easy and had to be replaced.

Festiva Maxima White, large, with red sprinklings in the center…but hard to cut just right and not a really good keeper.

Msgr. Jules Elie. This is French. It was a fine pink, easy to work with and a good keeper.

Madame Duce.l Almost the same flower but different growth characteristics.

Edulas Superba. Pink. It had a good characteristic of having longer stems than some. The stems needed to be a certain length to pass.

Felix Crousse. Beautiful red.

So the roster went. It takes three years to establish a plant enough to make sufficient flowers to cut and not damage the plant.

The odor of the whole packing shed full of the fresh flowers and leaves is something that I will never forget.

We also sold the plants in the fall. The cluster consists of a group of “eyes”, attached to the tuber parts. Carefully divided, there will be several eyes for the proper amount of the little “tubers” which store the nutriment and from which the small roots come out. An acceptable plant needs to have from three to five eyes and enough of the tubers to balance them.

Don’t go into the Peony business. It is as outdated as the buffalo.

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One Comment

  1. The first peony picture, with the ant inside, is so perfect. I wonder how many people are aware that these little custodians of our world are required to open the petals of the peony flower. Every spring when ants march in to challenge my humanistic spirit all around the kitchen, I quell my killer intinct with the memory of how necessary these critters are to the beauty of the bloom on my peony plants.

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