20 years of peonies: A budding industry blooms
July 15, 2021
In 2001, Pat Holloway planted the first test plot of peonies in Georgeson Botanical Garden. Holloway, at the time a horticulture professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, was studying whether it was possible to raise peonies for the commercial market in Alaska’s harsh climate.
The peony project was nothing new, said Holloway, now a professor emeritus. It started as a 10-year research project at the Agricultural and Forestry and Experiment Station.
“It’s the same thing we’ve been doing for years, and had been doing since the early 1900s in Alaska with just trying things and seeing if they work,” she said. “And this one happened to explode.”
Twenty years later, Holloway’s peony experiment has grown into one of Alaska’s major agricultural commodities and one of the state’s few home-grown exports. More than 135 peony farmers from Fort Yukon to Homer are expected to export about 300,000 peony blossoms this year, with a retail price of about $5 per bloom.
Holloway’s peony experiment started with a chance remark at a conference in the late 1990s. During her talk, she listed some of the flowers that bloom in Alaska, including peonies, colorful, showy blooms that are popular with brides. Afterward, an Oregon flower grower told her “You have something no one else in the world has. You have peonies blooming in July.”
Holloway did some research and discovered that peonies were available around the globe most of the year, but not during July, August and September. The global flower market is huge, and Holloway thought that if Alaska peonies could be grown successfully, they could fill that gap.
“Maybe we could build it up as something that was an export market,” Holloway said. “If we could get an export, then the whole world is our oyster.”
She trialed several varieties of peonies, wrote up the results and posted them online. Her first inkling that there might be commercial interest came when she got a call on a Saturday afternoon from a flower broker in England who had read her research and was excited to find peonies blooming in late summer. He ordered 100,000 stems, to be delivered immediately to a plane heading for London.
“So I’m sitting in my office on a Saturday all by myself just about dying laughing,” she said. She told him that she only had about 30 plants. Later that summer, a visit from a New Zealand couple who grow peonies reinforced the idea that she was on the right track. The couple were wowed by the size and quality of the flowers in the experimental plots and assured Holloway that Alaska peonies would find a ready summer market.
Ron and Marji Illingworth, who own North Pole Peonies, were commercial peony pioneers. They planted 25 peonies, five each of five varieties in 2004. Three did well, one was mediocre and the fifth didn’t survive, Ron Illingworth said. They focused on what worked and in 2010 started growing peonies full-time. This year, his farm's harvest will total about 40,000 stems, he said. The market for Alaska peonies is constantly expanding.
“Right now in addition to just about any place in the Lower 48, we sell to Canada, we sell to England. We are selling in the Southeast Asia market,” Illingworth said. “It’s something that has great opportunity worldwide as well as domestic.”
Peonies are perfect example of how UAF Cooperative Extension Service research led directly to a commercial product.
“If Pat hadn’t had that experience and actually did something with it, and said ‘I need to talk to people,’ this industry would have never started,” Illingworth said.