Internationally recognized Missouri peony hybridizer gifts new cultivators to MUBG

Don Hollingsworth and Catherine Smith

Internationally recognized peony hybridizer, and MU alum, Don Hollingsworth poses with Catherine Smith, a field inspector for the Missouri Plant Industries Division, of the Missouri Department of Agriculture in 2020. The peonies pictured, have just been cross pollinated and tagged by Hollingsworth.

Don Hollingsworth, a native Missourian and MU alumnus living in Maryville, Mo., is an internationally recognized peony grower and hybridizer. Hollingsworth had begun doing recreational plant breeding in 1958 while working for MU Extension, first dabbling in iris and Hemerocallis crosses. Peony-breeding caught his fancy and has held him in its grasp for more than 50 years.


In 2021, MU’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources recognized Hollingsworth’s career accomplishments as an MU alumnus with a dean’s certificate from his alma mater.


Hollingsworth’s achievements in his peony hobby-turned-passion have earned him the American Peony Society’s (APS) Bertrand H. Farr Lifetime Achievement Award and A.P. Saunders Memorial Medal. He has served on the APS board since 1976, with two terms as its president. And he has registered more than 70 unique and gorgeous peony introductions.


Last fall, Mizzou Botanic Garden benefitted from Hollingsworth’s international peony breeding success and his generosity with his gift of several of his notable cultivars, which were added to the landscape surrounding the Francis Quadrangle.


Hollingsworth also is generous with his peony expertise, serving as an inspiration to countless peony growers, including his friend, and fellow peony devotee Eric Gooding.


“Don has provided much for the peony community. From publications to plant introductions, he has never shied from sharing his knowledge,” Gooding said.


Don Hollingswoth: means, motive and opportunities

Don Hollingsworth grew up near St. Joseph, Mo. during the depression. “My dad had a young family and did sharecrop farming,” Hollingsworth said.


That changed when one man’s ill-fate created opportunity for the Hollingsworths.


“A flood and other misfortunes caused my family to lose our place in the creek bottom near Stewartsville, Missouri. Due to the flood, we lost the livestock feed we needed for the next year,” Hollingsworth said. “That was in 1929, same year as Black Thursday, which kicked off the Great Depression. Banks failed and agriculture loans had become rare.”


Hollingsworth said that due to the generosity of his mother’s parents, 10 acres [in rural St. Joseph, Mo.] that had been pledged to them as collateral on a real estate loan became available when the borrower defaulted.


“By an in-family agreement, which did not require cash, we were able to move onto the property without a down payment,” he said. “The previous owner had planted horticulture crops — fruit trees, strawberries, grapes — so we ate just great.”


Hollingsworth’s father worked at the St. Joseph stockyards and the baby animals he brought home allowed Hollingsworth to participate in 4-H and also in FFA working with animals and poultry, the latter of which became a cash crop. Introduced to genetics in high school, his fascination with the science of inherited traits continued throughout his life.


Hollingsworth attended MU to study vocational agriculture, a discipline he described as “picking whatever you wanted” from among various School of Agriculture offerings.


“I selected basic sciences, ag production and studied In the Economics Department at the Ag School,” he said. “I was envisioning being a cattle breeder.”


Launched “into the real world,” after graduation in 1948, Hollingsworth’s first brief jobs were working with people who had the means to do cattle breeding, but who lacked experience needed to establish themselves. “It was a great educational experience,” he said.


After a stint with MU Extension in Nodaway County, Hollingsworth was transferred to University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) Extension to explore what service role might develop for University Extension in the urban environment.


At roughly the same time, Hollingsworth learned that Sylvia Saunders — the daughter of Percy Saunders, a peony breeder of note in the early 1900s at New York’s Hamilton College — was sharing her father’s plants for reasonable prices to encourage peony breeding.


“It was my chance to start out with some good first-generation hybrids,” Hollingsworth said. “That was in the late 60s and early 70s. I still have some of those plants and some of them I still use.”


Access to UMKC’s Linda Hall Library of Science and Technology and the library’s 14-acre arboretum — with a large collection of herbaceous peonies and a knowledgeable groundskeeper — were prescient fringe benefits. Hollingsworth also took advantage of the college’s graduate program in plant biology.


His first registered introductions occurred in 1984, launched by a rich rose-red double hybrid named Delaware Chief. Another of his other early successes, aptly named Garden Treasure, is an award-winning breakthrough beauty that continues to be one of his most noteworthy crosses.


Garden Treasure

Landscape Services groundkeeper, Jeremy Grasela

‘Garden Treasure’, introduced by Don Hollingsworth in 1984, is the one of two breakthrough successful Itoh hybrid peony crosses between an herbaceous peony and a tree peony, the first of their kind in the United States. It won the American Peony Society (APS) Gold Medal in 1996; the APS Award of Landscape Merit in 2009; and APS Best in Show in 2001, 2004, 2005 and 2007. It remains one of Hollingsworth’s favorites. One of ten groupings of the plants is located near the Chancellor’s residence.

Herbaceous perennial peonies — homestead peonies — are the species Paeonia lactiflora with parentage in central and eastern Asia. Foliage dies to the ground in winter and reappears in spring. Tree peonies, native to China, are woody, deciduous shrubs, dropping foliage from their branches in winter.


In 1948, Toichi Itoh, a Japanese nurseryman, successfully crossed the two species — called an intersectional cross — resulting in selections with desirable traits from both parents. Referred to as Itohs, the peony’s physical structure is herbaceous. But the flowers take after the tree side of the family, retaining an alert, upright habit rather than herbaceous peony bloom’s proclivity to nod downward. Itohs bloom in the mid- to late-peony season and are cold hardy to USDA Hardiness Zone 4.


Hollingsworth decided he would attempt to duplicate Itoh’s effort: a cross of a Lactiflora peony with pollen from the buttery yellow Lutea hybrid cross ‘Alice Harding’. With no access to the Lutea’s pollen, he wrote to the garden editor of the Kansas City Star who included Hollingsworth’s quest in his column. A gardener from Independence, Mo., answered the call. Hollingsworth’s potential Lactiflora peony parents had finished blooming for the season but on a Memorial Day trip to his wife’s parents’ home in Maryville — now his home — he discovered a few blooms on some “homestead” peonies and pollinated them, which resulted in five seeds.


Three of the seeds germinated and two plants survived, one with exceptional qualities. When they bloomed in their third year, Hollingsworth knew he had produced the first American-bred Itohs: Garden Treasure and Border Charm. Both produce yellow flowers with red highlights on low-growing plants with the former being a little more opulent in character: vigorous, very cold tolerant with large blooms that open over a longer period of time – up to four weeks in cooler climates. Garden Treasure earned APS’s highest honor, the Champion Award, in 1996.


“It was my first real success — two plants that are now grown world-wide and it was accomplished with an old, old peony growing on my wife’s farm,” he said. “I asked a circle of hobby hybridizers to help me identify that very healthy peony, which is resistant to a lot of things that plague peonies. I learned from literature that it might be a commonly grown English peony called Queen Victoria from the early 1800s. I sent a photo that was compared it to old paintings. But it’s purely circumstantial since it was selected in Asia.”


When passion becomes a second career

In 1992, Hollingsworth launched Hollingsworth Peonies, a retail peony business, from his farm located southeast of Maryville, Mo. He sold his own introductions and other peonies of note. New crosses/introductions were offered every year. Across time, he has focused his efforts on developing peonies with cold resistance and early ornamental quality and sturdiness, among other desirable traits.


In 2013, Juergen Steininger purchased the business and in 2016, moved the operation to a more favorable 80-acre location a few miles southeast of Burlington Junction.


Hollingsworth, now 94, works along Steininger as a hybridizer and consultant. The pair annually offers new introductions and continues to ship Hollingsworth Peonies to enthusiasts and breeders all over the world.


When asked if he had a favorite among his many successful crosses, Hollingsworth first said that whichever woody stem peony was in bloom at the time was his favorite.


“Garden Treasure,” he added. “That one went a long way to keeping me involved. That experience, that anticipation. You try to outdo the bees.”

Hollingsworth Peony

Left to right: Don Hollingsworth introduced ‘Ring of Fire’ in 2007. It is a large, single, fire engine red midseason bloomer, planted near the Journalism archway on the Francis Quad. Don Hollingsworth and Juergen Steininger introduced Virginia Emerson in 2016. Fully double, it is a midseason bloomer and has been planted near Lafferre Hall and in the Ellis Perennial Garden.