Monday, June 18, 2012

Oshawa peony festival sees 567 blooms vie for ribbon

Newcastle resident Helena Ho uses her nose to seek out the still-glorious blossoms at Oshawa Valley Botanical Gardens on Sunday. The displays were at their best two weeks ago, thanks to an early spring, which festival organizers hadn't planned on.
Carola Vyhnak/For the toronto star
 Constance Spry was fading fast. Joseph Rock could hardly hold his weary head up. But Florence Nicholls, pretty in pale pink, was still fresh as a daisy.
“I’m just astounded,” marvelled Judi Denny on Sunday, looking over the tablefuls of blooms in Oshawa’s eighth annual peony festival. “Some are flagging, but I’m amazed they’ve hung in the way they have.”
Many named for people, the 567 blossoms vying for a ribbon had been chilling in family fridges for up to six weeks, thanks to the early spring. Refrigerating the cut stems before a show is normal, but “the weather has devastated the timing,” explained Denny, a festival organizer and peony enthusiast for more than 40 years. “If anyone jiggles the table, petals are going to fall off.”
The weekend event, billed as the largest of its kind in the country, drew visitors and participants from across the province to Oshawa Valley Botanical Gardens, where 325 varieties of peonies show off their best stuff in May and early June.
According to Denny, the show judges look for the perfect bloom that’s symmetrical, appears “untouched by wind or rain,” is as soft as a tissue — but not too soft — and stands up straight on its stem.
A tall order, perhaps but “just dumb luck” snagged the title of grand champion for Ron Adams, whose “Coral Charm” bloom was still holding her head up proudly for shutterbugs in the hockey arena where the show was held.
“It’s a hit or miss affair,” said Adams, a Pickering retiree. “I had dozens in the fridge, but I threw most of them away. It was a mess. But one of them hit the jackpot.”
For Warkworth resident Tom Harris, who grows close to 200 varieties with his partner, Dennis Gebhardt, picking multiple prize-winning posies was strictly a guessing game.
“I have no control over what the bud will look like when it opens,” he said, explaining each one was wrapped in “perfect-size paper, the Toronto Star,” then tagged, bagged in plastic and laid out in the fridge weeks ago. “Dennis calls it our peony diet because there’s no room for food.”
A serious case of peonies envy brought Oshawa apartment dweller Nicole Petra to the gardens almost every night for weeks.
“I think of peonies like the ones in my mum’s garden. But there are so many colours, it’s amazing. And I found out there are over 5,000 varieties.”
Winning ribbons, which Peterborough resident Hazel Cook did in spades, is all about “luck and science and trying to figure out which day do I cut it.”
The hope, she said, is that blooms hit their moment of glory during the two-hour window when the judges come around. But the ordinary gardener has just as much chance as anyone else of cultivating “that one spectacular flower,” says Cook, who runs Blossom Hill Nursery with her husband, Joe.
Drought-resistant, low-maintenance and bug-free, peonies are a favourite perennial for folks like Helena Ho, who’s in the midst of landscaping after moving to Newcastle from Burlington.
“I love that one,” she said, burying her nose in an armful of fuchsia-coloured beauties. “It’s a very good pastime.”
Bowmanville resident Brian Kemp found himself at the festival with his family to celebrate Father’s Day and daughter Keira’s 16th birthday.
“I’m not anything horticultural,” he said, but used the opportunity to take pictures for his flower-fancying mother-in-law’s Facebook profile.

Courtesy of The Star

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