ROBBINSTON, Maine — As visitors arrive at Beauty of the Earth Farm on the Down East coast, its remoteness and its charm are quickly evident. They are greeted by a tall, cedar shingled barn with a large cupola and white wood trim on a neat cape with a red front door.
The second impression that surrounds and envelops visitors is the scent — the unforgettable, dizzying perfume of thousands of peonies.
The colors range from pure white to a deep red, with single and double blooms as large as dessert plates.
Jane Eaton lives and works in what seems to be pretty close to heaven, surrounded by three massive gardens of flowers — an acre of peonies and another 2 acres filled with annual and perennial flowers. She sells her bouquets at local farmers’ markets and through a unique Friday delivery to private homes, local motels and restaurants.
But it is the peonies that are her mainstay. In a normal June, Eaton will ship 3,400 peony buds to wholesalers in New Hampshire, Massachusetts or Connecticut.
Standing in her peony field on a cool June morning, waist deep in 20-year-old plants laden with buds, Eaton recited the names of the flower varieties: Miss America, Paula Faye, Old Faithful, Coral Charm, Sarah Bernhardt, Brother Chuck, Duchess de Nemours.
This year, however, a late spring frost took a toll on the buds and Eaton thinks she will ship only about half her usual yield.
“This is the worst I’ve seen it in 20 years,” she said.
She grabbed a peony stalk and pointed to a cluster of shriveled, blackened buds. “Blast,” she said. She wasn’t cussing, but referring to the actual name of the condition of the buds caused by frost and stress.
On many of the bushes, Eaton was able to remove the blasted buds (the terminal buds) and allow the secondary buds (lateral buds) to develop. It took her days of backbreaking work, but it saved her crop.
Despite the damage, she still estimated Monday that she would ship 1,500 to 1,700 blooms this week to the New England flower markets.
The peony is the traditional floral symbol of China — the word peony in Chinese means beautiful — the state flower of Indiana and the 12th anniversary flower. It is also known as the flower of riches and honor, and is generally regarded as an omen of good fortune and happy marriage.
That connection to weddings was the catalyst that led to the creation of Eaton’s peony farm in Washington County.
Eaton can supply peonies later than any other grower in the U.S. — a boon for June and July brides wanting tablescapes and bouquets of them.
Eaton, a former attorney and assistant district attorney in Washington County, was searching for a crop to fill some fields on her 65-acre farm when a Connecticut flower wholesaler who saw a strong market for late blooming flowers suggested she grow peonies.
All winter, peonies are imported to wholesalers from New Zealand and South America. Most U.S. suppliers have exhausted their supply by late May. But Eaton, raising her flowers on a northwest slope on the cool coast of Down East Maine with its late springs and foggy, chilly nights, can harvest buds until late July.
But 2010 hasn’t proven to be an ordinary weather year.
“This season, what I have will be gone by the end of the week,” she said. “They grew so fast in March and April that this is the earliest I ever had to harvest.”
Eaton moved through the bushes, holding each bud in the palm of her hand and pressing tenderly on it with her thumb. If she felt a certain level of resistance, a softness there, the bud was cut and shipped. They are cut complete with long stems, perfect for bouquets, and placed in buckets of water in a cooler constructed in the basement of the barn. After harvest, the buds are bundled and rolled tightly in newspapers.
They are shipped the same day they are picked and arrive at the wholesalers the next morning.
In the 20 years that Eaton has been selling peonies, she has used a variety of shipping methods from hiring commercial delivery companies such as UPS to employing a neighbor with a refrigerated truck. For a couple of years she piggy-backed with a local seafood dealer, mingling the aroma of sweet peonies with the tang of fresh lobster, shrimp, periwinkles and scallops.
This year she will wrap herself up in long johns and winter coats, set the air conditioning in her van on high and deliver them herself.
For a while, Eaton said, she toyed with the idea of a mail-order business. “I get calls every day from brides all over the country looking for peonies after their local florists have said they are no longer available,” she said.
But so far, despite this year’s unusual spring and deep losses, selling directly to the wholesalers works for Eaton.
She has become a sought-after expert on peony cultivation and sells not just the flowers, but entire plants from her farm.
Eaton said it is an old wives’ tale that ants are needed for peonies to bud but she does give some credence to the theory that ants repel bud-boring insects. “I also like the new varieties being developed,” she said. “The stems are stronger.”
In her local markets, Eaton said she often combines native plants with her perennial and annual blooms.
“There is so much that is beautiful here that people don’t see,” she said. “There is larch, tamarack, mountain cranberries.”
Many annuals and perennials are too fragile to ship, she said, but they make wonderful flower arrangements.
“You can get a lot more variety with locally grown flowers,” she said.
Her perennial garden contains hundreds of varieties: lilies, tulips, foxglove, coral bells, veronica, sea holly, nigella, lady’s mantle, sea lavender.
Eaton is philosophical and feels that the oddness of this spring’s weather was an aberration. She has ordered 100 new peony plants for fall planting.
“This may not be what I planned for my life, but I love it,” she said. As workers filled the bed of a pickup truck with soon-to-open peony buds, Eaton shook her head. “Right now — at harvest — it is a bit insane.”
More information about Eaton’s farm is available at www.beautyoftheearthfarm.com.