Adeline’s Peonies was established in 1933 by Adeline McCarthy in Toppenish, and her family has been raising peonies there ever since.
Born in North Dakota in 1896, Adeline Klinger eloped with Frank McCarthy when she was just a teenager and traveled with him to Toppenish in a covered wagon. They arrived in 1915 and built their home on 2.5 acres, right next to the railroad tracks, at what is now 502 Asotin Ave. Looking at the neighborhood today, it seems as if the city of Toppenish grew up around the McCarthy home.
There, in a charming cottage painted a sunny shade of yellow, the McCarthys raised nine boys and one girl. Frank, a mechanic, built a shop on the property. Adeline planted a vegetable garden to feed her family, and a flower garden for herself. Perhaps peonies reminded her of home. Native to dry, frigid mountainsides in China, all peonies require a long period of winter chilling (400 hours of temperatures below 32 degrees) before they will bloom. The quintessential “old-fashioned” flower, peonies were likely well-known to a girl who grew up in North Dakota.
Grit and determination shaped Adeline’s character. In the 1930s, her business began when she started trading peonies with her Native American neighbors for salmon and huckleberries. After all, those were hard times, and she had 10 children to feed.
Not only were the Yakamas Adeline’s first customers, but they have continued to be some of her most loyal. Yakama Nation citizens have a long tradition of decorating the graves of their ancestors with flowers on Memorial Day. Over the years, to meet their demand, Adeline planted more peonies. Her grandson Pat McCarthy, who grew up in Toppenish, remembers that by the time he was a schoolboy, there was almost an acre of peonies growing behind grandma’s house.
Pat loves to tell stories about his grandmother. During the Great Depression, out-of-work men got from one place to another by hopping freight trains. They depended on the addresses of stops where they might find a meal, penciled on boxcar walls. Hungry men would regularly jump off the train as it rumbled through Toppenish and walk to Adeline’s door. It was common knowledge that in return for a few hours of work in her garden, Adeline would make sure they were fed.
Adeline continued selling peonies until the 1960s. That’s when Pat’s dad Roger, along with other members of the McCarthy clan, took over, continuing to grow and sell peonies, but just as a side business. About 20 years ago, Pat decided to try flower farming more seriously. He left a career in the newspaper business, reorganized a patchwork of gardens on Asotin Avenue into a field of precise rows, and added many new peony varieties to extend the bloom season.
Perhaps the most exciting chapter in the story of Adeline’s Peonies is yet to come. After living and working in California, Pat’s son and Adeline’s great-grandson Jay McCarthy came back to the Yakima Valley a few years ago to try his hand at growing peonies. It was a match made in heaven. What was just a side business for decades of McCarthys has become Jay’s life’s work. He’s planting another larger peony field in the Lower Valley to expand Adeline’s wholesale production.
If you ask Pat what it means to have his son join the business, he becomes teary-eyed when he explains, “Working with Jay is the greatest pleasure I have.” I expect that Adeline would be just as delighted that her great-grandson is living in the same yellow cottage she and her husband built, tending flowers she planted.
Some perennials may come and go in a garden, but peonies live a long, long time. In a corner of the field on Asotin Avenue, you’ll find 200 flourishing plants from the plot Adeline started almost a century ago. Pat poignantly muses that the peonies he planted in the last 20 years will live on long after he’s gone, to be harvested by generations of McCarthys to come.
I visited Adeline’s on the Monday after Mother’s Day. That holiday is one of the busiest days in the retail store and one of only two Sundays that the shop stays open. Since before dawn, the processing area has been a beehive of activity. Every farmer knows that a harvest is at the mercy of the weather, compressed by warm temperatures, drawn out by cooler days, or jeopardized by an untimely frost. This year, peonies will be picked from early-May into mid-June.
Fidel Ramos was there, harvesting peonies for the McCarthys as he has for over 40 years. Moving quickly through the fields, the pickers choose buds that are just beginning to show color, and feel like a marshmallow would if you gave it a gentle squeeze. The well-orchestrated crew knows that time is of the essence, and that the cut flowers must make it into the cooler quickly. They processed 10,000 peonies that day, most of them destined for the wholesale market, largely in Western Washington.
Varieties like Coral Charm, Lemon Chiffon, Paula Fay, Mons Jules Elie and Pink Hawaiian Coral are recent introductions, prized in today’s cut flower market. Brides dream of flowers like these in their wedding bouquets.
Do you crave fresh flowers in your life? Are you drawn to a just-picked, fragrant blossom like a bee is to nectar? The flowers from your neighborhood florist or the grocery store are picture-perfect and lovely enough. But they were likely bred for their suitability as freight rather than for their delicacy, grace, or scent. One hundred years ago, almost all the cut flowers sold in the United States were also grown here. Now, nearly three-fourths of our flowers are imports, mostly from Colombia or Ecuador.
Forget flowers grown on the other side of the world. Seasonal, local bouquets are “in.” Take a short ride to Adeline’s and find real flowers, grown and harvested by hand in rich garden soil that’s been in the same family for generations. If you take a deep breath, you can smell the peonies, even before you see them.