Peonies—those gorgeous, pastel flowers that can bloom as big as dinner plates—are grown all over the world, but there’s only one place where they open up in July. That’s in Alaska, and ever since a horticulturalist discovered this bit of peony trivia, growers here have been planting the flowers as quickly as they can.
While speaking at a conference in the late 1990s, Pat Holloway, a horticulturalist at University of Alaska Fairbanks and manager of the Georgeson Botanical Garden, casually mentioned that peonies, which are wildly popular with brides, were among the many flowers that grew in Alaska. After her talk, a flower grower from Oregon found her in the crowd. “He said, ‘You have something no one else in the world has,’” she recalls. “‘You have peonies blooming in July.’”
Realizing the implications of his insight, Holloway planted a test plot at the botanical garden in 2001. “The first year, they just grew beautifully and they looked gorgeous,” says Holloway. She wrote about her blooms in a report and posted it online. To her surprise, a flower broker from England found the reports of her trials and called to order 100,000 peonies a week. Holloway laughed, informing him that she only had a few dozen plants. But she told a few growers around the state, and that was enough to convince several to plant peonies of their own. “And once they started advertising them, they found out—you can sell these,” says Holloway.
It helps that peonies not only survive, but thrive in Alaska. “Up here, the peonies go from breaking through the soil to flowering within four weeks,” says Aaron Stierle, a peony farmer at Solitude Springs Farm in Fairbanks. “That’s half the time it takes anywhere else in the world.” Blooms from Alaska are unusually big, up to eight inches across, from the long hours of sunshine. The state’s harsh climate staves off most diseases and insects. Even moose—one of the state’s most common garden pests—aren’t a threat, as they hate the taste of peonies.
But their biggest advantage, which that Oregon grower was so keen to point out, is in filling a seasonal gap in the global market that could elevate peonies to the status of roses, in an elite club of cut flowers that are available all year long. Flower markets from England to Taiwan are eager to place orders for Alaska’s midsummer beauties and so are brokers from coast to coast here in the states, where Alaska's peonies bloom just in time for late summer weddings. But first, the peony growers in Alaska must endure the early pains of starting a new industry.
Ron and Marji Illingworth, who live in the Alaskan town of North Pole, were growing vegetables when they first heard of Holloway’s research. They soon planted 25 peonies alongside their carrots and beans and are now one of the biggest growers in the state, selling 7,000 peonies last year as North Pole Peonies. As many as 58 peony farms have sprouted up in Alaska, capable of producing about 200,000 peonies a year. Marji Illingworth estimates that just in her region, growers will sell a million dollars worth of peonies by 2020.
That’s still a far cry from meeting the demand of the English caller who wanted 100,000 flowers a week, as well as the many other buyers who have since taken notice of Alaska’s peonies. From her living room in late spring, looking out at fields still covered in snow, Marji Illingworth rattles off a list of requests Alaska growers have received: 200,000 stems a week to the East Coast, 10,000 to Taiwan and a few hundred thousand to Dubai. “The market’s huge,” says Richard Currie, owner of Pennsylvania-based Styer’s Peonies and a 30-year veteran of the cut flower business. “I don’t think they need to worry about the market.”
Because of the great demand, growers in the state have enjoyed premium prices. “We’re selling peonies now for two to three times more than we figured we could to pay off [our initial investment],” Ron Illingworth says, settled into a rocking chair across from his wife. Holloway says Alaska’s growers can fetch $4 a flower, while Dutch growers who sell “during the glut of the season” in April and May can only charge 28 cents. It’s no wonder, Marji Illingworth says, that the Dutch have started to freeze peonies in order to try to resell them later in the summer. She’s not worried, since she says the size and shelf life of her peonies still far outperform those of the frozen Dutch flowers.