Nothing says summer in the city of Oshawa like the annual Peony Festival at the Oshawa Valley Botanical Gardens. This popular festival is a celebration of horticulture, arts and heritage, and is quite an achievement since it is the only place in North America where you can see over 300 varieties of peonies in a single location. While this year’s festival won’t be the same kind of in-person event that has been enjoyed in years past, there will be a virtual event in its place, and the gorgeous peony blossoms can still be viewed in person at the botanical gardens for as long as these opulent blooms last.
Now in its 17th year, the Peony Festival is the largest tourist event that the City of Oshawa organizes. Attracting a wide variety of visitors from outside of Oshawa and the Durham Region, this free event is a major contributor to the city’s strategy of building a strong, vital and connected arts, culture and heritage sector. Chock full of sights, smells, tastes and sounds, the festival partners with an array of tourism partners like The Canadian Peony Society, the Oshawa Art Association, Durham Tourism, the Durham Chinese Canadian Culture Centre and Central Counties Tourism-to name just a few.
Of course, there would be no festival without a botanical garden full of peonies and other varieties of flowers and garden plants. The public garden is the joint efforts of the City of Oshawa and the Oshawa Garden Club who volunteer both administratively and physically. “The Oshawa Garden Club has a big hand in the administration of the festival,” says Councillor Rick Kerr, Chair of the Community Services Committee of Oshawa. “The city provides the amenities, the portable washrooms, the building maintenance, that sort of stuff. There is a terrific cooperative effort between the Oshawa Garden Club and the City of Oshawa’s Park Department, who are terrific horticulturalists within their own right.”
For its 15th anniversary in 2019, the festival welcomed tourist from across Canada, the United States, the Netherlands and China. Features of the festival were expanded to commemorate the occasion. Local artisans, food vendors, a wine garden, a children’s garden, music, artists engaged in plein-air painting, and live cultural performances were added to the event. Inside the nearby Children’s Arena, where the celebrated Peony Show and competition is held (in which entrants can bring peonies from their own gardens) guests could also enjoy a Bonsai display, art and photo competitions, and a gift of 1,000 peonies from Luoyang, China.
If you didn’t know, peonies are a culturally important blossom across many Asian communities around the world—particularly the Chinese community, as the peony is the national flower of China. In Chinese art, the peony is a symbol of wealth and power, and is therefore a common theme in traditional paintings, silk embroidery and other decorations. “For people of Chinese heritage, this Peony Festival is a big deal,” Rick says. “We get maybe 6,000 people out to see the festival and it’s a significant percentage of those attendants that are of Chinese or Asian heritage.”
The 17th annual Oshawa Peony Festival will look a little different this year than it traditionally has. Instead of in-person events, there will be a virtual tour and lots of great online activities, exhibits and even documentaries. “It’s worthwhile to visit the site because of the volume of activities and features on there,” Rick Kerr says. Also, the gardens are still open to visitors, although this aspect will be more regulated than in times past to maintain physical distancing.
For gardening enthusiasts, this is your chance to learn more about how to grow peonies and other plant varieties. If you are able to visit the Peony Festival when we’re up and running in person again, you can even buy peony and other bulbs to add to your own gardens. “There are always members of the Oshawa Garden Club set up there to handle brochures and discuss what they do,” Rick says. “That is a nice feature—you can walk in and approach several tables where you can stand and talk to people. You can get all kinds of tips on growing peonies and other types of flowers.”
With such a vibrant horticultural community, it’s no wonder that Oshawa was a national finalist of the Communities in Bloom competition. The organization has recognized this city with numerous provincial, national and even international awards based on landscape, gardens, community involvement and overall cleanliness. Rick boasts, “I was talking to someone from BC—they pride themselves on their gardens because they have the climate that permits a longer growing season. But they knew all about Oshawa because we keep beating them out on the National Communities in Bloom award. They are well aware of the quality of our community gardens and flowers.”
The Oshawa Peony Festival is held every year in June to correspond with the timeframe that peonies bloom. If you’ve missed it, not to worry—there are so many beautiful gardens in the City of Oshawa, and the virtual format of the Peony Festival can still be found online. If you’re a gardening enthusiast, or if you just love the tranquility of a beautiful garden, you’re going to want to come out to Durham Region to see the beauty that Oshawa has to offer.
Oshawa Valley Botanical Gardens
155 Arena St., Oshawa
Story by Katherine Ryalen