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Peonies just improve with age

Ray Lyons has the clipping in his pocket, a little square of paper with directions to today's destination: Pacific Peonies, just outside Canby.

His wife, Eve, has been gardening for 70 years. Ray does the mowing. Eve's in charge of the flowers. Today, Eve is determined to replace a shrub that didn't make it.

'I need something small, and I'm very picky,' she says.

Could have fooled me. As soon as the Lyons set their eyes on the perky peony 'Early Scout,' it's all over. Just like that. Eve's never grown a peony before but admires this smaller variety. It's perfect for the front of her border, she says.

The owners of Pacific Peonies hear that all the time.

Chris Baglien and Theresa Snelson say they're the only women business owners in the nation in the peony industry. In 1993, they were employed at a Lake Oswego doctor's office when they and their husbands agreed to sell their comfortable homes and buy acreage for peonies.

Business was hunt and peck at that point. They bought a couple of hundred plants from a specialty nursery and then were lucky enough to save hundreds of 30-year-old plants from a site in Tigard where a housing development was going in.

What motivated them to take on this huge commitment? They wanted to be home with their kids. Until recently, though, the perfection of this plan eluded their daughters, who called the business 'peony prison' because of the long hours it required.

Looking back a decade, Snelson says the two got into the peony business at the right time.

'I think they are interesting, rare and unusual plants you can't find everywhere,' she says. 'I mean, they have great foliage in the spring and fall, and the flowers are so novel.'

Baglien lives to grow plants. She has a lovely garden at home and then lives peonies at work, though work is in an idyllic setting: a big red barn surrounded this time of year by blooming peonies. Even their daughters can see the beauty of it now, calling it 'peony paradise' instead of prison.

When the women aren't growing peonies, they are drying them and making wreaths, swags and bouquets.

'I truly don't think there's a more beautiful bouquet than mixed peonies,' Baglien says.

No one's ever been able to dry peonies the traditional way, but the two women have perfected the difficult method of freeze-drying the blooms so they last all year. They sell them in the big red barn.

With these experts at our beck and call, we might want to know what their favorite peonies are. Don't even go there. The answer is simple: whatever's blooming that day. It's impossible for either to choose.

Luckily, peony plants aren't that expensive. They generally sell for $8 to $24 and just get bigger and better every year you grow them.

While you're there, a new selection of peonies called intersectional hybrids is a must-see not only because one plant sells for $250, but because their beauty is said to surpass all others. (These plants are a cross between herbaceous and tree peonies.) The intersectional 'Bartzella' is said to be one of the most beautiful flowers in the world and is bigger than a salad plate.

Contact Anne Jaeger through her Web site, www.gardengal.tv.