Driving into a neighborhood in the middle of Toppenish, Washington, I find myself surprised. I recognize Les Schwab and the school bus depot, but as I pull off of Asotin Avenue, wedged in-between some houses on an ordinary side street, there is an open field of almost two acres of peonies. “Adeline’s Peonies” by the small signage. Planted in tidy rows, the round, bald-baby’s-head buds rising up by the thousands, the expanse of green makes me double take. “But I’m in town!” my inner know-it-all is thinking. Never the less, here it is. Come to find out that Adeline’s Peonies has been tucked away here for about 80 years. Now this is a story I need to know.
Walking out into the field, the flowers are moments away from being ready to pick. I am greeted by Pat and Jay McCarthy, the grandson and great-grandson of Adeline herself. Both vibrating with the excitement that only comes on the eve of harvest, they generously spare some time to chat with me. Standing at the bottom of a row of Lemon Chiffons—an early blooming variety—the history comes tumbling out.
Back in the 1930’s, Grandma Adeline McCarthy, a woman raising nine sons and one daughter in a little yellow house in Toppenish, planted a large garden in her backyard. Among her plantings were quite a few peonies. Come spring, when they would burst into large, fragrant blooms, local Native Americans started stopping by and offering to trade with her. Salmon for flowers. To a woman raising 10 children during the depression, this was an entirely terrific trade. So, she started planting more and more, and the transactions continued over the years—salmon, huckleberries, money—as her customer base grew. Pat says that by the time he came along many years later, there was almost a full acre of peonies out behind grandma’s house. As a little boy, weeding and watering the flowers was a regular pastime for him. It remained a wonderful side income for her until she hung up her garden gloves in the 1960’s and her children stepped up to take care of the bloom. Adeline’s little yellow house still stands at the front end of the field, her 92-year-old son residing there today.
The children continued to grow and sell the flowers through the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s. Still as just a side business. The month long harvest becoming a family reunion of sorts for the McCarthy clan. Around 2000, Pat stepped up and decided to try his hand at wrangling the large blooms himself. Little by little, he replaced many of the old varieties with heartier types and reorganized the field into the tidy rows.
Three years ago, his son Jay came home from working in California to devote his time to the peonies. Pat says that having the opportunity to share this with his son has been an absolute delight. Moving from a side business to a main business, their wholesale end is thriving and they are in the process of expanding, with a new eight acre field being put into production in Sunnyside. Jay says that they grow around 500,000 stems per year now, and he’d like to see that grow to over 1,000,000 in the near future.Today, very few are ready to go, but there are definitely some available for harvest in this Red Charm, Lemon Chiffon, Hawaiian Coral area we are standing in. Pat mentions that the cool weather has led to a delay in bloom, making for some anxious brides, but mother nature works at her own tempo. I watch as stem after stem is cut quickly at the perfect length. A feat not as easy as it looks, I am told. Fidel, the gentleman doing the cutting, has been at it for 40 years. Jay is walking up and down the rows with armloads of the cut bloom and places them in a cart to haul back to the main area where they will be stored in a cold room. Soon, the picking will begin in earnest. The cold room will be full, the decades long regular customers will have their fill, and the wholesalers can rejoice at getting their hands on the very beautiful, but very seasonal, peony.
Eighty years ago, I’m sure Adeline had no idea that her garden would become a family legacy, iconic to the Toppenish area. How simply spectacular.