They grew up decades and an ocean apart, one just outside St. Joseph in the 1930s and one in Bavaria, Germany, in the 1970s. It might seem like an unlikely pair, but Don Hollingsworth and Juergen Steininger share a passion for innovation in cultivating plant varieties.
Throughout the 1990s until 2013, Hollingsworth operated the business on the southeast end of Maryville where he sold potted and wholesale peonies and ran an online and printed catalog.
Hollingsworth began breeding cattle in the late 1940s after studying agriculture at the University of Missouri. Early in his breeding career, Hollingsworth said he didn’t see a great enough opportunity for him to improve livestock the way he would have liked. Coming up with new plant varieties, Hollingsworth said, was more appealing.
Limited to his backyard, Hollingsworth began experimenting with ornamental perennials, but several species of flowers, such as daylilies and irises required too much money to buy into state of the art equipment for the breeding business.
“An opportunity to do peonies came down the road that didn’t cost a lot of money because the person with the stock was dispersing it and wanted the work that had gone into it continued,” Hollingsworth said. “That’s what determined what I spent my time on.”
By 1967, Hollingsworth delivered his first set of crosses. Hollingsworth grew peonies outside Kansas City on borrowed land from retired gardeners and older gardening enthusiasts in the late 1960s into the 1980s, and he moved the plants to his current residence in 1985.
As Hollingsworth was literally growing his retail business, Steininger was 14 in Bavaria working an apprenticeship to become a certified greenhouse operator. When he received a stipend from the state of Ohio, Steininger moved to the United States for a foreign exchange program at Ohio State University, where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
In Bavaria, he’d been involved with horticulture since he was a child. His family had lived in Bohemia, now the Czech Republic, until the Iron Curtain pushed them into the mountains in Bavaria. Despite the circumstances, Steininger said it was a beautiful setting. His parents, and his brother and sister are nurses.
“And I’m the odd one,” he said. “My mom claims I’m going after my granddad.”
Steininger said his grandfather was into plants, but the two never met. Steininger’s grandfather died of starvation after World War II.
After graduating from OSU, Steininger taught and worked all over the world as a breeder, grower, and teacher.
Around the time Hollingsworth wanted to sell the business in 2013, he and Steininger became acquainted through the annual American Peony Society, of which Hollingsworth was then the director. That year Steininger was working as a specialty grower at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, where the society’s annual convention took place.
Steininger knew Hollingsworth’s work, and he’d ordered from him several times. He bought the Hollingsworth’s brand name and stock, but Steininger wasn’t interested in walking away without getting to know the man who built it all.
Three years later, Steininger still makes cross-country trips from near Wilmington, Delaware, to Maryville to check on the plants. Some of them grow near where Steininger lives in New England, while the rest grow here.
While he’s in town, Steininger stays at Hollingsworth’s farm house. Their partnership is informal because Steininger is the CEO of the business.
“I’m just a source of information,” Hollingsworth said.
“No, he keeps me straight sometimes,” Steininger added.
Hollingsworth said he gives Steininger advice whether he wants it or not, and they both laughed about it.
“He puts up with it because he gets to stay here when he comes to this part of the country,” Hollingsworth said.
Although Steininger loves Maryville, the current location isn’t ideal. The soil in the area, according to Steininger, isn’t of the quality he needs to settle and expand the business.
As a permanent resident of the United States, Steininger plans to stick around. Steininger has seen a lot of the world, and he likes the Midwest, where he finds most strangers friendly and the pace pretty mellow. Nodaway County has some land he’s considering for relocation. For him, it’s close enough to Northwest Missouri State University, where he can form relationships with faculty there, it would reduce travel needed to monitor planting conditions and progress, and it’s less expensive to operate here than in New England.
Both men take particular care in how their flowers are represented, both in print and online. The angles, lighting, and colors have to be just right.
If you’re going to get a picture, Hollingsworth said, it’s important to get one that would win an award.
After all, even though they’re not their biological offspring, many of them are the progeny of their crossbreeding efforts.
“What Don does is traditional Mendelian breeding,” Steininger said.
This means Hollingsworth collects the pollen and assumes the role of a honeybee, pollinating and cross breeding out in the fields.
“We’re not coming up with anything in a lab,” Steininger said.
“And there’s no GMO stuff going on,” said Hollingsworth.
Cultivating new varieties of peonies doesn’t happen overnight—or even after a season. Hollingsworth peonies grow for four to six years in the field to obtain high quality root divisions.
This year, Steininger and Hollingsworth released two new cultivars, the Virginia Emerson, and the Sugar Plum Fairy. Hollingsworth said that he has introduced about 55 cultivars throughout his career as a breeder. Although he’s registered far more, he said he couldn’t claim the breeds as his own because he was continuing the work of others.
Hollingsworth developed Golden Treasure, an intersectional yellow peony, in 1984. The plant is a hybrid of a tree and garden peonies also known as an “Itoh peony,” named after Toichi Itoh, a Japanese hybridizer who was the first to develop this kind of crossbreed.
Steininger said that for planters, it’s still an industry standard known for its golden color, hearty stems, and staggered blooming pattern.
“One of the significant things about peonies is that they do not inbreed very satisfactorily, so they do not lend to making absolutely uniform stuff like green beans or cultivar seed corn,” Hollingsworth said. “So you pick out characteristics of parents you want to put together and hope to emphasize their desirable traits, and maybe something will show up that you had no expectation of, but you take what you get. If it’s attractive and appealing, you go with it.”
According to Hollingsworth, it could take up to 15 to 20 years to establish a crop with enough to sell and enough to reserve for propagating more. Even though he’s sold the business, Hollingsworth is still experimenting with selected seedlings in his beds.
“I’m making crosses now,” he said. “I could live until next week, or into the next decade—more likely, it’s going to be closer to next week, but that’s not going to terminate those. Somebody will be looking at them and deciding if they’re appropriate for them to carry on.”