Old-fashioned peonies never go out of fashion – Iowa City Press-Citizen

When Edward Secor’s peonies were just right, their wonderful perfume wafting through the air, the colors dark red to almost purple, pure white and fragrant pink, he threw a party. A peony party.

It was June 1915 and hundreds of people came to walk through his garden, take a peek at his new two-story spacious house called “The Shelter,” sip home-squeezed lemonade and talk to the man who was purported to be the “Burbank of Iowa.”

Beth Cody, in her book, “Iowa Gardens of the Past,” tells the story of Secor, born in New York in 1841, who left his father’s farm at age 21 to explore a new frontier area just opened in north central Iowa near Forest City, Iowa.

He became very successful in farming and business and popular in the community, but it is his horticulture experimenting that gives him the privilege of being compared to Luther Burbank.

The weather, the brutal cold Iowa winters were his nemesis. Fruit trees grown in New York failed, roses he loved, would not survive. He experimented, much trial and error was endured but he discovered that phlox, spring bulbs, Iris, lilies and his beloved peonies were so hardy that he said “They laugh at thirty below!”

He ordered peonies from all over the United States and Europe. He wanted new varieties, colors, doubles so he sent for seeds. He hand pollinated them and succeeded in making many new hybrids, one of which he named after his daughter, “Nina Secor.”

At the time of his party, Beth Cody writes that he had hundreds of peonies that bloomed over several weeks. Secor also wrote poetry about flowers, nature and bees and perhaps you can imagine he amused his guests that day with his verses.

There is a street named after him, Secor Avenue, in Forest City. I know it well as I grew up walking or riding on Secor most every day, but I never knew about the peonies until reading it in “Iowa Gardens of the Past.” The area has been changed many times, I ‘m sure, but Secor’s work and horticulture expertise is well documented on the internet.

Peonies come in so many colors, in bicolors, in deep almost purple, shocking pinks, and in the last 20 years or so, the elusive yellow. They are an easy care plant and may live for a hundred years. When the flowers have faded and are gone you will have a green hedge until fall. The foliage dies down on its own and, as Mr. Secor discovered they survive cold weather easily. 

They have few enemies, But winds and rains are two that often beat down the stalks and scatter the petals. If you know rain is coming, pick a good sized bouquet to have in the house. Ants love peonies but do not damage the plant. Use your sink spray faucet to wash them away. 

Stay well. Wear your mask. Enjoy gardening.

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