With lots of love, piles of passion, decades of careful nourishment — and lots of patience — Hazel and Joe Cook’s prized flower has been named the 2023 Peony of the Year by the Canadian Peony Society.
With a shared passion for gardening, the retired couple, who have lived on Fife’s Bay Road in Selwyn Township since 1980, began gardening decades ago — the beginning of a journey that would eventually see the couple, now married for 50 years, recognized with the honour in January.
After moving to their Selwyn Township property, the two greenthumbs began gardening around their residence. Then, in 1994, the pair bought a plot of land behind their home, which they soon turned into a full-fledged garden.
They planted some peonies. Their passion for the seasonal flower took off in 2004, when friends in Guelph asked the couple if they’d split a peony collection. The two ended up with 800 peony plants.
The duo started their own business on the acreage they’d obtained: Blossom Hill Nursery.
Their daughter Amy helps out with the online aspect of the business.
“(Joe and I) are both very involved. It started as a hobby, then it became kind of an obsession and went on to become a business, Hazel reflected.
The story of Hazel and Joe’s 2023 Peony of the Year began in 2008. Pat de Villiers asked the pair to help her dig her mature, 12-year-old peony plant from her property to share with her family. In return, they were given pieces of bare root.
Twelve years earlier, in 1996, Villiers had bought the plant’s seeds from the late John Simkins, a well-respected giant in the gardening and seedling community who made his mark selling distinct peony seedlings in Styrofoam cups.
Simkins, a founding member of the Canadian Peony Society, was known to grow seeds of “Roy Pehrson’s Best Yellow,” which would grow to be unique, bowl-shaped peonies that took on an unusual Japanese-type flower form.
Hazel and Joe immediately planted the root in their garden — and the rest is history. Their divisions grew well and the couple were excited with what they saw: Simkins’ unmistakable yellow, Japanese-type flower.
The two took the blooms to the American Peony Society convention in 2010. Several impressed top breeders and growers crowded around the plant, remarking on the flower’s “uniquely wonderful characteristics,” Hazel recalled.
The American Peony Society, established well over a century ago, is a staple among greenthumbs around the world. While the society is separate from the Canadian Peony Society, the two organizations have a friendly relationship and share information with one another.
In 2016, Hazel and Joe registered the peony through the American Peony Society.
That’s when the unique flower earned its fitting name: John’s Dream.
“It was a suggestion from Roy Klehm, owner of Klehm’s Song Sparrow Farm and Nursery in Wisconsin. He was a friend of (Simkin) for many years through their involvement with the American Peony Society,” said Hazel.
Hazel reflected on John’s Dream being acknowledged earlier this year.
“It’s definitely nice to have that distinction because John’s Dream so deserves to be recognized,” she said.
Hazel and Joe are no strangers to being honoured for their gardening and business work. Blossom Hill Nursery was recently named microbusiness of the year locally. The two have also been dubbed Canadian and American grand champions three times for their flowers.
They were recognized in 2014 in the U.S. for their Illini Belle flower, a dark red herbaceous peony, and in Canada, they were honoured for growing an intersectional peony — a bloom Bartzella.
“We find gardening can be challenging at times but there is always more to learn and it is an excuse to spend time outdoors in nature,” said Hazel.
By Brendan Burke, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Original Published on Mar 09, 2023 at 20:14