Around the lower Kenai Peninsula as the calendar page turns to August, evidence of an early season can be seen in the hills and meadows. Fireweed flowers have bloomed almost to the end of their stalks. Blueberries, currants, raspberries and even high-bush cranberries have ripened. What’s true for wild flora also holds true for cultivated crops.
From the top of Skyline Drive to Fritz Creek, growers say the same thing: peonies have bloomed early.
At Alaska Perfect Peony in Fritz Creek, one of the area’s first farms, grower Rita Jo Shoultz said peonies have bloomed 19 days earlier.
“Which means we weren’t prepared for some orders and are in some minor, minor competition in other areas of the world,” she said.
That’s not an issue, though.
“Even if there were peonies available from someplace else, they’d come to us because we have a superior product,” Shoultz said.
For some growers, an early season meant the harvest ended barely after it started, while growers at higher elevations got an earlier start to their cutting.
Research started in 2001 by the Georgeson Botanical Garden, Fairbanks, suggested Alaska could be a strong market for summer-fresh peonies. Peonies can bloom from late June to September at a time when world markets are limited. That’s also the peak of the summer wedding season, when event planners want the big, bold flowers.
Thanks to Alaska’s high latitude, colder summers and later growing season, growers can hit the market when product is most desired. Alaska now has 35 peony growers, with 22 growers listed as members of the Alaska Peony Growers. Homer and Fritz Creek have seven members in the trade group.
Shoultz started growing peonies in 2006 with 3,500 plants. Her son, Shannon, is now a partner. Shoultz said she doesn’t pick peonies until wholesalers have placed orders. Wholesalers sell to florists who sell to customers, mostly event planners. Wholesale buyers demand top-notch flowers, Shoultz said. Orders usually come in Wednesdays for weekend events.
“The main part for us is we don’t take orders until we’re positive we can fill them,” she said. “(Wholesalers) need the top, the absolute best — the tightest bud, the longest stem.”
Alaska Perfect Peony started taking orders on July 20, started cutting by July 23 and by last Friday had filled all its wholesale orders. Further north in Kenai and Soldotna, growers also had beautiful flowers early, Shoultz said.
“They had beautiful product like we did, but couldn’t cut it fast enough,” she said. “Here on the peninsula, it was ‘Katie bar the door.’”
In some years Shoultz has cut flowers up to Oct. 10. This year she ended her wholesale cutting on July 25, usually the start of her harvest. With her harvest mostly done, she referred 25 orders to Chilly Root Peony Farm, run by commercial fishermen Michelle LaFriniere and Mike Poole.
At 1,500 feet elevation near the end of East Skyline Drive, Chilly Root will probably have flowers for another two weeks, LaFriniere said. She picked up some orders from Shoultz.
“We’re an entirely different ecosystem as far as growing conditions,” LaFriniere said of her farm in comparison to Shoultz. “That works out really well for me. I’m grateful. I’d sell them, but this way I sell them faster, and then it’s off to fishing silvers for me.”
LaFrinier also plants late varieties such as avalanche. In some years, the flowers don’t bloom until after leaves have fallen off alders.
“These are Christmas peonies,” LaFriniere said. “What were we thinking? This year will be real fun because it’s so much earlier.”
Growers in the Netherlands and the lower 48 states said they were three to four weeks early, so local growers weren’t surprised. Shoultz keeps track of things like when plants start leafing out. She knew earlier in the summer that she was ahead about 19 days.
“I should have known better. I thought it would cool off,” Shoultz said. “We didn’t make any changes.”
In some ways, compared to fishing, peony farming isn’t much different, LaFriniere said. They fish early-run Copper River king salmon and sell to high-end lower 48 markets. Peonies have a similar high-end market, she said.
“It’s really a seque. Fishing and flowers are pretty similar in how we market them and what we do,” LaFriniere said.
She sells to event planners in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas and Colorado.
“They might be buying flowers, but they’re buying Alaska,” she said. “Anytime you’re in retail sales, they’re buying your story.”
LaFriniere said when she first got into peony farming, she thought she would be picking flowers in a sun dress and hat. That didn’t work out.
“It’s lot more like fishing than I thought,” she said, laughing. “I’m still in my rain gear and my XtraTufs.”
Although Shoultz isn’t filling wholesale orders, she still has flowers available locally that she’s kept in coolers. She sold some flowers last weekend for a Homer Foundation fundraiser in Halibut Cove. Shoultz and Beth Van Sandt of Scenic Place Peonies also sell at the Homer Farmers Market. Shoultz also sells flowers at Save-U-More. Last week, she also went to Washington, D.C., as a finalist for the White House Champions of Change for the Future of American Agriculture. She said last Friday that as a flower grower she didn’t expect to win.
“The fact that a cut-flower grower got this far — I think that’s really fantastic for all cut-flower growers,” she said.
Michael Armstrong can be reached at email@example.com.
Alaska Peony Growers
22 member growers statewide
Lower Kenai Peninsula members
3 Glaciers Farm
Colleen & Larry Riley
Alaska Perfect Peony
Rita Jo Shoultz
Chilly Root Peony Farm LLC
and Mike Poole
Diamond Ridge Peonies
Sean and Gerri Martin
Kachemak Seascape Peonies
Daisy Lee Bitter
Late Bloomer Peony Farm
Sue & Tom Klinker
Scenic Place Peonies
Beth Van Sandt