Somewhere They Are Harvesting Peonies in July: Alaska

Spread the love

Have you seen peonies at a wedding in the summer? Did you wonder where they came from?

Summers on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska are so mild, temperatures never go much above 60 degrees F. Peonies, therefore, flower much later in Alaska than they do in the lower 48. In fact, some don’t begin to bloom until August.

The Shoultz family in Fritz Creek, Alaska, is part of an industry that takes advantage of Alaska’s unique climate. As an American flower farmer, the Shoultzes have the distinction of being the first to grow peonies commercially in Alaska. They did it in 2006 when it was almost impossible to find a peony in a florist shop in July or August.

They called their business Alaska Perfect Peony.

Rita Jo Schoultz was head of the business then, and is still head now.  “I’ve always had an abundance of energy” she told us. “I think I inherited it from my Mom, who lived to be almost 97.”

To learn to grow peonies, she hooked up with Dr. Pat Holloway of the University of Alaska to visit peony growers in the lower 48. The State of Alaska was looking for a niche agricultural product, and there’s nothing more niche than peonies in July and August.

Today there are 200 growers in Alaska. Alaska Perfect Peony grows 15,000 tubers on 27 acres. They handle 100,000 stems of their own and other farmers’ peonies in the short season, hiring eighth-graders who are out of school to chill buds to 34 degrees, store them, pack them and ship them overnight to florists in Alaska, commercial enterprises all over the US and individuals who order on their website.

Prices are listed, for 20 peonies in bud, with a choice of color, type, fragrance, and availability by time of bloom in July and August, about $159 including overnight FedEx to your door in the lower 48.

Anyone thinking about planting a peony this fall or next spring might profit from reading the Schoultz assessment of the many, many peonies they sell, as to color, fragrance and habit. It makes for entertaining reading and is far more nuanced and critical than most garden catalogs.

Alaska Perfect Peony also sells bare root peonies, in bags of 15 or so — enough to make a peony border. Orders for those must be in by August 1.

A fragrant peony called Bowl of Cream

And that’s not the end of their enterprise. Like most flower farmers, the Schoultz family has diversified.

“Three years ago, there was a terrible ice storm and we had losses,” she says.  “I am at an age, 80, where starting over didn’t seem practical.  But financially, we needed to continue.”

Her son, Shannon, who had been in the construction business, became her partner and together they redesigned some of the fields and turned their property into an event space. “Because Alaska has all these popular Reality TV shows, it’s becoming sought out for destination weddings,” she says. “Our 25 acres with wildlife and a wildfowl sanctuary lake, mature trees and perennial gardens looks like paradise.”

One more thing: Having the most popular flower for brides does not hurt one bit.

— Linda Lee

Linda Lee is a former writer and editor at “The New York Times”