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Peonies could be Alaska's biggest cash crop

Peonies flowers were the sole focus of a conference July 21-24 at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Experts in floriculture, specialty cut flowers, high tunnels, nutrition, soils, plant diseases, breeding and post-harvest care attended from universities and businesses across the nation.

On the first day, participants toured the Georgeson Botanical Garden, Polar Peonies, Basically Basil, Spinach Creek Farm and Lilyvale Farm. The second day was a symposium in the Elvey Auditorium on the UAF campus. Topics included an overview of specialty cut flowers, the peony industry, research needs, marketing, field production, pest management, breeding and more.

Patricia Holloway, a horticulture professor at UAF and director of the Georgeson Botanical Garden, considers peony blossoms the most economically valuable plant in Alaska.

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.

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.

Currently, 41 producers grow peonies in the state, from Fairbanks to Homer, and more are joining the ranks each year. Of those, 13 have 500 or more peony plants.

To conclude the conference activities, experts and growers brainstormed ideas to help prepare a proposal for a USDA specialty crop research grant. The goal was to discover exactly what is necessary to market peonies, extend the seasons and explore cut flower opportunities. The conference was funded by UAF Center for Research Services and hosted by the Georgeson Botanical Garden and the Alaska Peony Growers Association.

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