Peonies in Alaska

Remembering my years at the San Francisco market in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I recall the short season of peonies which flooded the market in late April to early May. With luck, availability lasted through Memorial Day. Long associated with Grandma’s garden and grave decorations, peonies have traversed a path similar to callas; a garden beauty, inexpensive cemetery flowers to one of today’s most desired blooms for wedding celebrations.

Somewhere in the mid to late 1980s, domestic production was augmented with imports from Holland, New Zealand and Chile, opening the heretofore limited availability period from spring to pretty much year-round (October to late May). Of course, global availability extended the sales window considerably. The so-called “cocooning” trend of the 1990s (as defined by Faith Popcorn) established a good foundation for the uptick in peony awareness. Cocooning favored home entertaining with an emphasis on garden parties. Linen and upholstery designs trended to floral patterns and Martha Stewart was busy teaching consumers the simplicity of DIY flower designing by filling jam jars with garden flowers cut to 5 inches. Showy bloom shapes, interesting colors and fragrance made the re-discovery of peony panache a shoo-in. Peony fever took off faster than a New York minute and the interest still remains strong. Heck, a quick search on Martha’s site gave 343 results for articles featuring peonies.

But is it possible to produce peonies in Alaska? Yes, absolutely! After attending the Alaskan Peony Growers 2011 summer conference, I know that it makes sense because the flower availability (June, July and early August) falls outside every other state or country’s harvest window. Flower production coincides perfectly with summer wedding demand. With peonies, the first 3-4 years is a time of disbudding to build the plants. Removing buds allows energy to flow into roots and bulk them up. Because there is considerable time lag between planting and cutting commercial blooms, it should be some years before production meets demand. With the laws of supply and demand determining prices the world of cut flowers, Alaska peony growers likely won’t be haggling with wholesale buyers in the lower 48 for $0.65-0.80/stem prices any time soon.

Summer production keeps this grower group in the price-maker rather than price-taker category, hopefully providing them a leg up on realizing profits fairly early in their endeavor because peony growing is not for the faint-hearted. Cut stage is tricky, reliable coolers for temperature management essential, Cladosporium paeonia fungi love these plants, packing materials are pricey and the roots are expensive, so start-up costs are high. The short growing season is unforgiving to mishaps or wrong steps.                  

All growers know the fickle nature of weather and transportation methods. Fed Ex has no cooling facilities for shipping temperature-sensitive perishables, making a roll of the dice of  how your flower look  after the stress of riding in a non-cooled delivery van on a 95-degree summer day.

The Alaska project originated from a comment    Dr. Pat Holloway, University of Alaska Fairbanks horticulturalist, heard at a convention at the Georgeson Botanical Gardens about peonies being an untapped product in the global flower market. A light went on in her head, and soon she had secured $10,000 in Federal Ag money earmarked for crop research. In the early 2000s, Dr Holloway started with 30 varieties to see which of these cool-weather perennials gave best results in Alaska’s short growing season.

Interest and production acreage has steadily gained momentum and now more than 30 growers belong to the Alaska Peony Growers Association, whose mission is “to provide support and assistance to its members in all aspects of growing, processing, transporting and marketing of peony plants and flowers…advocate for research, reasonable governmental regulation, public and private financial assistance, and technology transfer that supports its members and the commercial peony industry in Alaska.” Power in numbers! Together these growers cooperate to overcome unexpected twists and turns of producing commercial cut peonies. The season is short, but the long hours of sunlight allow plants to thrive and flourish.

The keynote speakers at  the conference were well-established growers from New Zealand, Tony and Judy Banks from Omeo Farms. Their discussions included the importance of temperature management, packing, grading, transportation glitches, variety specifics and cut stage. Andre Weirstra from Oregon Perennials discussed 2nd and 3rd year maintenance of plants. I provided information about postharvest handling and market expectations. Dr. Holloway gave an update on research. Other topics included understanding soil tests, phyto regulations for exports out of country, and Fed Ex regulations. Of course, no grower conference would be complete without farm tours so the second half of each day found our group traipsing through farms in Homer and  Soldatna on the Kenai Pennisula.

To prepare for my postharvest talk, I ran a rather extensive test comparing various treatments by taking the flowers through the grower, wholesaler and retailer stages, simulating rotation and transit at temperatures of 33—38F. Finally, the flowers went into the consumer phase at ambient temperature and were watched to the end.   Andre from Oregon Perennials was kind enough to supply  200 stems of ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ so I could make two replications of the test. He cuts bunches into plain water (well water with pH of 6.8). Flowers remain in the same water throughout the entire rotation period, which can be as long as 6 weeks. His coolers are super efficient and run at 33F. Even though his temperature control was excellent, I felt confident that  at least one or more treatments would far outshine his plain water handling.  

Everything was well organized with one replication of the test happening at his farm and the other at a Portland wholesale house—real-life workshops. After the flower life was over, I spent several days comparing my notes about bud development and comparing photos of the various treatments. I decided none of the grower pre-treatments proved particularly stellar. In fact, the best results were realized when flowers were first hydrated in water during cold storage, then placed in Professional #2 T-bag at wholesaler/ retailer level and consumer flower food. Peonies are tough! In fact, because of our cool summer, Andre’s super-efficient coolers, and ambient temperatures of 68-71F during consumer phase, the flowers were almost bullet-proof! 

Take-home message to peony growers: cut flowers into clean water, be super-diligent about temperature management and make sure your wholesale or retail customers treat blooms in a display food solution or vase food solution rather than letting them sit dry until selling or designing with them.

Remind them to mix solutions with cold water or better, pre-chill to keep the flowers from opening too fast. Sugar (flower food) is the key to peony longevity. If selling directly to consumers, I highly recommend selling a handling kit with care instructions and 2 T-bags to process the bunches, and 2 consumer sachets per 10 stem bunch for vase solutions. Peonies are big drinkers and the food made the difference of 3-5 days longevity not to mention customer success.

Make a point of meeting members of the Alaskan group at our next ASCFG conference. Not only are they fun people, they can provide tips on how to keep moose out of your fields.

Gay Smith

Technical Consulting Manager

Gay Smith is the Technical Consulting Manager for Chrysal USA. Contact her at [email protected]