For The Love Of Peonies, And A Father's Legacy

07/05/12 12:00PM By Samantha Fields
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Chris Countryman at his family's peony farm in Northfield.
This is the story of a man falling in love with a flower.

That man's name was Bill Countryman, and according to his son, Chris, "he called the peonies his hobby gone awry."

The flower in question was a Comanche peony, which Bill got for his 70th birthday - with brilliant, wide magenta petals that open up like a shallow bowl, revealing a pale yellow center.

"This is the peony that started it all here," Chris tells visitors who stopped by to tour the farm one recent afternoon. "My dad's sister Mary Lou sent him a division of comanche peony, which he planted right here by the cabin. And when it made a flower, he fell in love with it, and decided to get a few more. He called comanche a dangerous peony because it got him hooked on peonies. And it may get you hooked too."

Now, when Chris says his dad got hooked, he's not exaggerating. In the years after that first peony bloomed, Bill acquired more and more of the flowers. His family got sucked in, too. They got singles and doubles in every color - pinks and reds, yellows and whites.

Walking around the fields with visitors, Chris points out the diversity. "In this field, every space is a different variety of peony. There are many hundreds of varieties of peony in this field alone. Here in this plot are gold medal winners of the American Peony Society, beginning with the Mrs. A.M. Brand Peony, awarded the gold medal in the year 1923."

As their collection grew, the Countrymans started going further afield to track down rare specimens.

"We have peonies here that nobody else has. We have some very rare varieties," Chris says. "We traveled to France and England in search of peony varieties which are not readily available in this country."

Over the course of about 10 years, the Countrymans grew their collection to more than 1,000 varieties of peonies. Chris says the farm has more types of peonies in one place than anywhere else in the world. 

"We didn't expect them to take over our lives the way they have," he says. But, he adds, "I think if you're going to be addicted to something, peonies is probably a good thing to be addicted to."

A few years into his love affair with peonies, Bill Countryman started selling them, too. To people who would come to the farm to visit his fields of flowers, and through a catalogue. Chris says the business was never really part of his father's plan. "He didn't want to be in the peony business. He sold peonies to support his habit."

Soon, he had people coming from all over the world to tour his fields, and placing orders for the flowers that captivated them the most.

VPR/Samantha Fields

Then, in 2005, Bill Countryman died suddenly - right at the height of peony season. Chris and his mother were left behind, to carry on Bill's legacy. 

Anne's 91 now. So it's Chris who gives tours to people who call or come by, and want to see the peonies. He does his best to tend to the flowers, too. But it's a daunting job for one man.

When a visitor asks if he has helpers, Chris pauses for a long moment. "I do not," he says, gesturing to the overgrown fields around him. "As you can see."

He does what he can, but for now, at least, the weeds are winning. The fields are thick with green-grasses and leaves, only some of which belong to the peonies.

"One man and five billion six hundred and fifty three thousand weeds," says Patty Wood, a visitor who's come down from Burlington to see the farm.

The flowers themselves seem to be doing fine. Peonies can throw off the weeds," Chris says. "Established peonies can compete with the weeds."

But it's clear that the state of the place, and the enormity of the task, weigh on Chris.

And for visitors who'd seen the farm in its glory days, like Susan Freeman of Burlington, it feels like a completely different place.

VPR/Samantha Fields
"I'd talked to Chris and his mother before we came," she says. "They both explained it was quite overrun but I didn't think it'd be this extreme. I'd love to see it back to what it was."

On a recent Thursday, Freeman drove down from Burlington with her friends Gail Wheeler and Patty Wood to see the peonies. Neither of them had been to the farm before, but they were clearly struck by what they saw.

"It's so much more than I expected, on so many levels," Wood says. For one, the sheer size of the property, and of the peony fields, surprised her. "And, as Gail says, I have a lump in my throat. The sadness of what this was. His father's dream. Started at 70, or around that age. To start something that big at this season of life is massive. And then to be able to keep it going. But then he passed away. And his family is left and his legacy is left. And who's going to carry it on. And it makes me sad. Because one man can't possibly. I don't see how the three of them did it, frankly. It's so big. So big."

Walking around the fields, she says, all she could think about was Bill Countryman's legacy. "What do you do with the legacy?"

Wood says it's a question that so many families face at some point, in one way or another. For Chris, it's a question that's difficult to answer.

"We miss my dad," he says. "He was a breath of fresh air. We miss him very much".

Chris says it's both for his father, and his own love of that beguiling flower, that he wants to keep the farm going. Even though, right now, it looks for all the world like an uphill battle.

 

 

 

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