Juneau gardener Brad Fluetsch has a photograph that, multiplied by thousands, tells the story: a $20 bill resting on a blooming Dutchesse peony flower.
Say “Alaska cash crop” and most people don’t think of the peony, a frothy flower that blooms in Alaska later than anywhere else in the commercial cut-flower world.
With at least $20 to $50 of stems per plant, in a state with easily accessible transport options, peony farming has begun to take off in Alaska. Fluetsch, who has more than a hundred just beginning to emerge from the ground in his North Douglas garden, wants to be the first commercial grower in Southeast.
“I’ve been growing them my whole life,” he said.
The earnings he projects for an acre — around $200,000 — aren’t bad.
Alaska’s peony beginnings
Peonies have been cultivated for 1,400 years in China, but back when Pat Holloway first started to research them, she knew nothing abut cut flowers.
“Really, truly, we did not know what we were doing. We were bumbling along,” she said. “There was no researcher I could call and say ‘How do I do this?’ in the whole U.S.”
Holloway is the director of the Georgeson Botanical Garden in Fairbanks. She’s also a professor of horticulture at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and work s for the Agriculture and Forestry Experiment Station there. Her specialties are wild blueberries and lingonberries.
Holloway’s job is to “search the world” to find opportunities for Alaska growers.
Peonies’ fateful day came when Holloway happened to mention, in front of an Oregonian peony-grower, that Alaska peonies bloom in July, August and even into the fall.
The grower told her no one else in the world has peonies that bloom that late.
Holloway started planting peonies in 2001 after getting an appropriation to buy the roots (which sell retail for up to $15 each, she said) from then-Senator Ted Stevens.
After she posted the results online, she got a call from a flower broker for London’s largest flower distributor. He told her they wanted 100,000 stems a week from Alaska.
“I could not believe it,” she said. “We had no idea.”
Each stem sells for an average of $4, though that can vary. A florist in New York City, for example, might pay $12 a stem, something she calls “just dreamy.” But most brokers buy stems for between $2 and $5 each, then turn them into bouquets and decorations.
Fortuitous turns have also helped the peony project. One Saturday, Holloway was at work when a student came in from the garden and told her some tourists were “going bonkers” about their late-July-blooming peonies. Holloway went out to meet them, and it turned out they were New Zealand’s No. 1 peony growers, in Alaska on vacation.
New Zealand’s peony season is October, November and December.
“They said, ‘You don’t know what a gold mine you’re sitting on. Nobody gets three months of the market to themselves,’” Holloway said.
The couple spent hours with Holloway, giving her an education she said was worth a year of research.
Later, the Division of Agriculture provided partial funding for some farmers to go to that New Zealand farm and work for a few weeks. The growers that went became Alaska’s biggest peony producers, Holloway said.
Another factor in Alaska’s favor? Air transportation. According to statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Transportation in 2008, Ted Stevens International Airport was the sixth-busiest international air freight terminal in the country. Fresh delivery requires air transport already in place within Alaska.
“There are a lot of northern areas that could be doing what we are, but we have this transport system that is absolutely phenomenal,” she said.
Initially, Holloway said, FedEx didn’t know how to respond to a request about how to handle Alaska peonies. This year, they called the Alaska Peony Growers Association, told them they were renovating their Memphis, Tenn. hub, and asked how they could do so in a way that would accommodate the flowers.
More than half of Alaska’s current growers started in 2012 and 2013, and most farms are in Interior Alaska. The roots take between two to five years to reach maturity and produce flowers.
Last year, Holloway said, Alaska’s peony growers harvested 31,360 stems. According to statistics kept by Holloway, 131,789 roots are recorded as planted right now. With an average of 10 harvestable stems per plant when those roots mature, that means projected harvests of more than a million stems in a few years. Fluetsch said the plants can sometimes produce even more harvestable stems.
Franci Havemeister, Director of the Division of Agriculture, said the division’s statistics don’t list peonies specifically.
“With the projections I’ve seen … there is a lot of potential, and they’re very optimistic down the road,” she said. “It (the Alaska Peony Growers Association) has taken off, and it’s very exciting to see industry work together to further the agriculture industry in the state.”
If Alaskan peonies are to get the international attention they need to succeed on a mass level, said Holloway, the state will need to provide more money for research on — for example — pests that might negatively affect a crop. They’ll also need to help more with marketing.
A Washington graduate student, along with a professor, is working on research, something Holloway appreciates but calls “totally embarrassing.”
“Our state is not willing to support the industry with research, so we have to go someplace else,” she said.
Southeast might provide different challenges — and bonuses — than Interior Alaska.
Fluetsch said in August, Southeast Alaska rains tend to drench the flowers. But they do bloom in July.
“If coastal Oregon can do it, Juneau can do it,” Holloway said.
Fluetsch says peonies are easy to grow as long as they’re planted at the right depth and insulated from frost.
“There’s nothing that eats them. There’s nothing that doesn’t like them … (and) this is the perfect place to grow peonies,” he said.
Right now, he and wife Kathy Dye grow them mostly for themselves, and for the occasional passerby. But they are pursuing permits to establish a commercial peony farm.
Regardless of their value on the global cut flower market, Juneau Garden Club president Molly Hodges says as late-summer bloomers, peonies are great for gardens.
“It’s the time of year when almost every garden needs a new focal point before the new leaves turn in the fall,” she said. “The scent alone is enough to inspire a poem.”
Holloway said in her decades of research, she’s never seen anything like peonies.
“It’s such an oddball thing,” she said. “Nobody is more surprised than me how this has taken off and become an industry.”