FAIRBANKS - Pat Holloway still remembers the day in 2004 when a British flower broker called with an unusual request: He needed peonies, and he needed them fast.
Holloway, a University of Alaska Fairbanks horticulture professor, was growing the flowers at the Georgeson Botanical Garden. The broker said she could simply toss a few boxes aboard one of the cargo jets that supplied the world with fresh Alaska fish, and he'd be happy to buy them.
"With that tantalizing detail, we thought there might be something there," Holloway said.
Today, Holloway and other Alaska agriculture leaders believe the state might be ready to make its mark on the world peony market. International demand and the unique northern growing season could be a combination that makes the classic flower Alaska's next cash crop.
UAF hosted dozens of growers, researchers and marketers during a four-day conference last week to boost the young industry. According to UAF, there are 41 peony producers from Fairbanks to Homer, with more adding to that number each year.
Alaska's potential as a peony producer is based on its late-summer growing season. The state's peonies bloom from late June to September, when the flowers are dormant in the rest of the world.
Since the slow-growing perennials don't do well in greenhouses, climate is a crucial factor. If someone wants a bouquet of midsummer peonies, it needs to come from Alaska.
"What's unique is that Alaska's growing season is so late," said Red Kennicott, whose Chicago-based Kennicott Brothers Company is among the biggest distributors of peonies. "This was the hole in the growing season."
During the past six years, a network between growers and marketers has slowly developed. The next step is finding a way to introduce Alaska's peony pipeline to the rest of the world. Experts from around the U.S. discussed breeding, pest management, marketing and more during the conference.
Attendees spent Friday working together to draft a proposal for a research grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Their goals are to discover what techniques are needed to market peonies and extend their growing season.
While peonies aren't as common as roses or carnations, they're in high demand by florists. They're also lucrative, frequently selling for $5 or more to the public.
John Dole, a North Carolina State University flower researcher who spoke at the conference, said peonies have an old-fashioned aura that other flowers can't duplicate.
"When grandma would come to visit, she'd bring a big bouquet of peonies," Dole said. "It's a special flower to a lot of people."
Lilyvale Farms outside North Pole has been growing peonies for the past six years, and co-owner Ronald Illingsworth said they've got most of the process down. High latitudes, colder temperatures and prolific sunlight all add their own nuances.
With an acre of peonies planted, Lilyvale sold the flowers commercially for the first time a year ago, and it offered a glimpse of the market's potential. They delivered across the U.S., and there were even inquiries from flower sellers in the Far East.
"We had to turn people away," said Marjorie Illingsworth.
Big flower producers have also moved into Alaska. Kennicott and his son own 11 peony farms in the Lower 48 and Chile, and they recently formed a partnership with growers on the Kenai Peninsula.
But getting the flowers to market has proved to be a challenge - one that the conference attendees shared.
It takes five years for the flowers to mature, and proper refrigeration techniques after they've been cut can add weeks to their lifespan. The Illingsworths shared their experiences with other Alaska growers.
"Everyone has questions, and they're great questions," Illingsworth said. "I wish we had answers to all of them."
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