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Late growing season and demand for peony flowers helps Alaska bloom a growing export industry

Posted: September 4, 2011 - 12:05am

ANCHORAGE — Demand for wedding flowers is helping a budding industry to sprout in Alaska.

Peonies blossom later in Alaska than elsewhere. So when big competing growers are past their seasons, Alaska can meet the demand.

The number of peony plants in the ground was estimated to increase by about 50 percent in 2011, to 60,000, North Pole grower Illingsworth told the Alaska Journal of Commerce.

“Last year, our sales were much smaller,” said Illingsworth, who is also president of the Alaska Peony Association. “Most of us are just now at the point where we have enough plants that are mature enough to do commercial sales.”

Alaska peony growers are shipping mainly to brokers and individual buyers in the continental United States, but they’re seeing interest from overseas.

Still, leaders in the new industry are focusing on gradual growth to establish a reputation for reliability before shipping large quantities of flowers to Italy, the Philippines and other places where buyers are interested in Alaska-grown peonies.

Illingsworth said he took a call recently from a broker in England who wanted 10,000 stems a week. Alaska’s production isn’t quite there yet; Illingsworth estimates about 6,000 stems were shipped to 15 states this summer.

Sue Kent, an environmental consultant who operates Midnight Sun Peonies near Soldotna as a side project, said 2011 was her first year selling commercially.

“It has been exciting,” she said. “One Monday, Oregon stopped growing, and my phone starting ringing.”

A peony industry can’t blossom overnight. It takes five years for a plant to produce flowers that can be sold, experts said. The trade group said about 25,000 Alaska peonies are three years or older.

Because Alaskans can sell when no one else can, they can command up to $5 a stem. That is about seven times the price in early summer when the big growers supply the market.

Despite bright prospects for the infant industry, recent budget cuts at the U.S. Department of Agriculture will result in its Agriculture Research Service closing in September, leaving peony growers without vital assistance in research, plant variety and nutrition when it is vitally needed.

Pat Holloway, director of the Georgeson Botanical Garden at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, a botanical research center, developed the idea of growing peonies commercially after meeting an Oregon grower at a greenhouse conference in the late 1990s.

She said growers face a range of issues including appropriate soils and fertilizers, weed control, disease identification, proper stages for cutting, and post-harvest chilling and handling.

“Growers can experiment on their own, but it is hugely expensive,” Holloway said. “The cut-flower trade is very competitive, and we need to build the best foundation we can for these growers to succeed.”

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