Peonies Find Unique Niche in Alaska
It takes several years for the flowers to bloom after they’ve been planted
FAIRBANKS - Alaska agricultural exports are making a comeback in a colorful way.
At the Georgeson Botanical Gardens at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, horticulture Professor Pat Holloway said Alaska peonies have found an exclusive and high-profile niche in the global floral market.
“Right now we're at the very, very, very beginnings of establishing an export market, and it will be the first really successful horticultural export market from Alaska,” Holloway said.
It began more than a decade ago, when Holloway and other UAF scientists discovered the late growing Alaska flowers are the only peonies in the world that bloom between July and September. For upscale designers and floral distributors, that means freshly cut stems during the three-month period when none where previously available.
Over the last two years, Holloway said distributors have requested more than one million stems of Alaska peonies, including floral companies in Tokyo, Chicago and London. Flamingo Holdings, an international produce and floral import company, has requested more than 100,000 stems per week, she said.
“The responses that we've been getting from people who have been buying the peonies in the Lower 48 are ‘Oh wow, do you have more? How many can we get next year?’” Holloway said, laughing.
But it takes several years for the flowers to bloom after they’ve been planted, and growers said the timeline hasn’t quite caught up with skyrocketing demand.
“It's a long haul where you have to maintain an operation that runs for five years in the red,” said Richard Repper, who cultivates 12,000 peony plants at his farm in Soldotna. “It's a lot of patience, but if you can hold out, the plants will come through for you.”
Repper and his wife had been producing hay and honey at Echo Lake Farm for the past 20 years, but branched out to flowers in 2008. Since then, he said they’ve been waiting for the peonies to mature and cultivating a steady export business through an agreement with the Chicago-based Kennicott Brothers floral company.
“Fifty percent goes straight to Chicago as soon as we pick,” he said. The rest have gone to weddings in Italy, florists in Tokyo and designers in the Lower 48.
In 2011, the Alaska Peony Growers Association reported 50,000 roots in the ground in the Last Frontier, and many of those are just now beginning to mature. Repper said he’s just waiting to fill the demand.