“There’s so much more to be discovered in peonies”(1)

Borst Flower Bulbs in Obdam has tulips in its genes. Three years ago a new crop was added: peonies. Apparently a totally different crop, yet peonies fit the workload perfectly and it offers so much more genetic possibilities. Hybridizer Paul Bijman and salesperson Menno Boots see a lot of perspective in the future.

With self-evident precision an employee of Borst Flower Bulbs picks a few sepals from the harvested peonies ‘Coral Sunset’, which have just been placed in auction flower buckets. “That’s because recently we had several days of hefty winds and the flower buds then hit one another, which sometimes results in brown edges and we don’t want to deliver such products,” explains Borst Flower Bulbs’ hybridizer Paul Bijman.


At the end of May it’s no longer tulip time but peony time instead at Borst Flower Bulbs in Obdam. Although the grading machines are sorting the tulip bulbs from the Southern Hemisphere, the focus is on peonies which daily leave the company in auction buckets and cardboard boxes. It is a new branch for Borst, but well thought through.”Our harvesting seasons of tulips ends more or less at the end of April. The deadheading of tulips in the fields also finishes at around the same time. Then a period of less work begins, until we start harvesting tulip bulbs in June. To spread the workload more evenly we were looking for an additional crop. Peonies were chosen, we already have everything we needed for it: cooling facilities, processing lines and also sales channels. We’re a Decorum member thanks to our tulips and we can now also sell our peonies through Decorum. In the flower trade the tulip resellers are usually also the peony resellers. What also brings tulips and peonies together is that both are seasonal flowers,” says Menno Boots, who is, together with Gijs Hoedjes, responsible for the flower trade.

The start was three years ago, this year is the first harvest, with some 300,000 stems finding their way to customers. As it is with tulips, Borst also chooses higher quality, meaning uniform, more open and heavy quality. Boots: “Our buyers recognize us for that, with peonies we want to follow suit.”

Paul Bijman between his flowering seedlings
Gijs Hoedjes (left) and Menno Boots are responsible for the sale of the peony cut flowers

Hybridization

Paul Bijman has been hybridizing tulips more than ten years. Five years ago Paul, Borst Flowers and Borst Flower Bulbs have started a company: Peony Breeding. It sounds strange at first. Hybridizing in a crop that already has such a wide assortment. What to look for then? “Profuse flowering, excellent bud presentation, preferably doubles, good vase life and upstanding foliage which results in easier processing.” According to Bijman those are the aspects where progress can be made. “For a long time hybridizing with peonies was done by amateur gardeners looking for a pretty peony. Specific qualities for them as cut flowers were not really considered.” He doesn’t share the wonderment over the wide assortment. “Take the tulip for example to see what what new shapes and colors are being added. With peonies there’s also so much more that can be found than has happened up to now.”

Last year the first seedlings have been selected and propagated, now it’s another three-year-wait to judge them again. Bijman likes what he sees. “Look, this seedling has 40 stems a plant after three years. And that’s a color not yet seen. We’re still looking for more doubles at the beginning of the season, so there’s plenty of work.”

Borst Flowers Obdam (Netherlands)

Just after the Second World War the young Jan Borst started growing tulips in Obdam. Through the years the company grew to become an important player in the introduction of new tulips. Borst had a keen eye for good seedlings, which he bought and propagated until there were enough of them to trade with. In 2010 his son Jos started the tulip cut flower business. The company distinguishes itself through a broad, mostly new assortment. Next to the main production of tulips in The Netherlands, it also grows tulips in Chili and New Zealand. Since 2016 Borst Flower Bulbs also grows peonies.

First harvest

Three years ago the first peonies were planted. Those who start with peonies, must not want to earn a quick buck. The flower harvest only starts the third year, which is this year. Till now the season has been going well. Temperatures have been stable, warmer extremes towards 30°C (86°F) as seen these last years have not occurred this time. There is another factor influencing trade this year however: Coronavirus. Notwithstanding this Menno Boots is satisfied. “We can easily sell our peony flowers. Exclusive markets like the United States and the Middle East are absent this year, but Germany buys and we’re happy with that. The Russian market has also recovered. Prices are only marginally below those of last year.”

Follow the market

Throughout the years Borst Flower Bulbs has become a large company with some 165 hectares (407 acres) of tulips. Such size is not the goal with peonies. “We never aimed to have such acreage with tulips, but we aimed to follow a certain market. That’s what your acreage is based upon,” says Boon. Because the harvest season of peonies is much shorter, the acreage is much more limited. “Of course you want repeat sales from the flower trade, but it must be manageable, so you need to fit the acreage to that.”

What the company does do in line with tulips is trying to lengthen the season through growing part of the peonies in the Southern Hemisphere. These flowers come to the Netherlands at the end of the year.

Old and new

How to start a new crop, what assortment to choose? Borst Flower Bulbs chose a combination of classics like ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ and ‘Duchesse de Nemours’ and new cultivars like ‘Pillow Talk’, ‘Class Act’, ‘Christmas Velvet’ and ‘Dynasty’. The last one is very promising, Bijman thinks. “Borst has bought this one at an auction and the hybridizer is unknown. ‘Dynasty’ is a very pretty, very double pink to white cultivar. Middle to late flowering and has clean, large flat buds. Those qualities, in combination with its profuse flowering, makes it an outstanding accession. The unique bud presentation makes a fine impression in the auction bucket and they are well paid for at the auction. We’re the only one growing it. By also investing in hybridization we aim for a more exclusive assortment.”

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Footnotes:
  1. Dwarswaard, A. & R. Faas. “Er valt nog zoveel meer uit de pioen te halen.” In: Greenity, June 5, 2020, pp. 12-15.[]
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