Come late summer, Alaska’s farmland blooms with romance and colorful ruffles. It’s the season for peonies in the north country—an unlikely floral industry that, thanks to bridal demand, has given rise to a surprising horticultural gold rush.
The lure is especially tempting for those with small parcels of land. Wayne ’76 and Patti ’75 Floyd, for example, joined the stampede in 2011 with only two acres, and have since created a successful business claiming both national and international markets.
“We’d had this farm bug in our hearts from the beginning but we were never in a place that we could do that,” says Patti. “When I heard that you could have a productive enterprise with only 2,500–3,000 peony plants, I told Wayne, ‘We’re going to cut down the trees, clear the land, and start a farm!’”
In 2017, the proud owners of Cool Cache Farms in Kenai, Alaska, shipped 23,000 long-stemmed peony buds to buyers in the United States and Asia, and their sales continue to rise.
Though peonies have been cultivated in America since the 1800s, they only recently became popular in Alaska. In 2002, former University of Alaska Fairbanks horticulturist Patricia Holloway ’76 MS suggested them as a possible cash crop for the state. Her instincts were right on target.
Not only do peonies thrive in a cold climate but the large fragrant flowers reach maturity during July, August, and September, a time when they’re unavailable anywhere else in the world.
“In the United States, you can only get peonies until around Memorial Day,” says Patti. “If a bride wants them for a late July wedding, she’s out of luck unless she comes to Alaska. So, we’ve been shipping all over the lower 48 and Hawaii.”
The long days and cool Alaskan soils also produce flowers in more brilliant shades of red, pink, white, cream, and coral than those farther south. Wayne says that’s because peonies have a color-enhancing enzyme that stays active during cool weather but fades, along with petal color, in the heat.
It’s all a boon to a state that struggles with agriculture, says Wayne. “Alaska used to produce 65 percent of its food locally. After the discovery of oil, many farmers left their land to work for the oil companies.
“The governor and legislature are working hard to reverse that and we’re starting to see some progress,” he says. For their part, the Floyds are active in the Alaska Peony Growers Association where Wayne is chairman of the export committee.
“The state is looking to increase its global exports and we broke into that market last fall by shipping stems to Vietnam,” says Patti. This spring, the couple tried to expand those sales with a whirlwind scouting trip to meet buyers in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Japan, and Korea.
Protecting their floral investment is a vital part of the job. Peonies, especially in Alaska, are susceptible to a destructive and costly fungal disease called gray mold.
Gary Chastagner, professor of plant pathology at WSU Puyallup Research and Extension Center, specializes in diseases of ornamental flowers and says gray mold is caused by several species of Botrytis which thrive in areas with cool wet summers. The fungus produces unsightly blemishes on the buds and foliage as well as significant post-harvest decay.
“Stems can look fine during shipment, but then the flowers fall apart after three days in a vase,” he says. “Our farm trials show that 20–60 percent of buds can be affected.”
The Floyds have begun to diversify their crops as a safeguard. They recently installed two half-dome structures called high tunnels which extend the growing season and allow them to produce vegetables like beans, tomatoes, garlic, beets,
It all results in a bountiful yield that calls for a few extra pairs of hands. This summer, the tiny peony farm has blossomed to the point that the Floyds plan to hire ten or eleven community members to help bring in the harvest.