Peonies in ‘peak bloom’ at Norfolk botanical garden

·2 min read

Peonies are in peak bloom in southern Ontario — but the colourful spectacle won’t last long.

“The next 12 days is really when you want to see the most possible,” said Darren Heimbecker, head gardener at Whistling Gardens, a botanical garden in Norfolk County that boasts North America’s largest public peony collection, with nearly 1,300 different varieties to sniff and admire.

“Peak bloom” means roughly half of the 3,000 individual peony plants found throughout the 22-acre garden are currently in bloom, with new blossoms opening every day.

Heimbecker gives each peony equal care and attention. But if pressed, he will admit to a favourite variety — the Lorelei, sturdy of stem and deep pink in colour, at least when The Spectator visited on Friday.

“Every 24 hours,” Heimbecker explained, “each flower changes colour.”

Over their 12-day lifespan, Lorelei blossoms transform into various hues of orange, finally ending up with ivory petals.

“I like when plants do something special every day. You get something new,” Heimbecker said.

The array of varieties at Whistling Gardens draws peony enthusiasts from across Ontario, Quebec and the northern United States. But Heimbecker said the venerable flower has an emotional pull, too.

“A lot of people who were immigrants to Canada grew up with them in Europe and they brought them to Canada,” he said, explaining that visiting seniors often tell him about the peonies that bloomed on the farms of their youth.

“It was just the classic thing to have,” he said.

All the peonies in Whistling Gardens’ extensive collection are donated, including rare species entrusted to Heimbecker by major players in the peony world who respect his horticultural skill and dedication.

With peonies able to live upwards of 80 years, Heimbecker is in it for the long haul.

“There are peonies documented that are well over 120 years old, still blooming,” he said.

Heimbecker and his wife, Wanda, spent the past decade turning a corn and soybean field into an internationally renowned botanical garden that brings busloads of tourists to Norfolk every season.

“And they come specifically to see peonies,” Heimbecker said.

There are peony plants on sale at the on-site garden centre, but no cut flowers.

Visitors who can tear themselves away from the flowers can also visit the aviary — where a peacock is among the eye-catching inhabitants — and walk through the continent’s largest collection of conifers, a “living museum” that includes redwoods, Monumentale sugar maples, colourful cacti and the Baishan fir, considered the world’s rarest tree.

Whistling Gardens is open six days a week in June, closed on Mondays. It’s located about 20 minutes south of Brantford on Concession 3 Townsend.

J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator

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