Two years ago, University of Alaska Fairbanks Professor Pat Holloway was attending the Luoyang, Henan Province, China, peony festival when a lightbulb exploded in her mind.
“There were 10 million peony blooms in Luoyang,” Holloway said. “They were in every park and public area; there were acres of peonies.”
Holloway, who has conducted extensive research on peony growing in Alaska and has worked for over a decade to boost the peony industry, said she felt puny next to this monumental event, but it was there that she first thought that Fairbanks could do something similar, if on a smaller scale.
“For several years, I’ve tried to introduce the idea of value-added products,” Holloway said. “You can add to the value of $4 stems of flowers with T-shirts, mugs, books, calendars and festivals.”
She has been urging members of the Alaska Peony Growers Association to get their communities to show support, and it’s working. The Matanuska-Susitna Borough has declared itself the peony capital of Alaska, the Fairbanks North Star Borough Economic Development Commission has recommended to the borough assembly that it make the peony the borough flower and growers in Homer have gone wild planting peonies in public places.
Holloway, a horticulture professor in the UAF School of Natural Resources and Extension, had been contemplating how to get peonies planted around Fairbanks and decided it was time to connect the Georgeson Botanical Garden, Arctic Alaska Peonies (a cooperative of peony growers and pack houses) and 4-H members. The result was a wonderful peony root sale fundraiser for youths, as well as a way to get more peonies in the ground. The botanical garden provided the cooler space and an instructional sheet for planting and caring for peonies.
Holloway dreams of the day the borough is carpeted with peonies. “I hope someone, not me, organizes a peony festival to show support for the industry and add value locally,” she said.
Jan Hanscom, a local peony grower and 4-H leader, has helped coordinate the effort. She said only two 4-H families have gotten involved, but they sold 200 peony roots, with 50 of the roots donated for public spaces. People who want to help but don’t want to grow the flowers themselves can buy roots for the Tanana Valley Fairgrounds or the Pioneer Home. Festival Fairbanks will take care of planting the roots in downtown spaces.
A Japanese-type flower has been offered this spring, and the 4-H members are taking orders for next year for Sarah Bernhardt, Festiva Maximus and Felix Crousse. Orders for roots will be taken until June 19 for this year and can be made anytime for next year. Buyers can pay 4-H members to plant the roots; the children use the funds for 4-H-related travel or projects.
Hanscom will be at the Georgeson Botanical Garden on Thursday, June 19 from 5 to 6 p.m., selling peony roots for $15 apiece.
Caleb Seekins, 11, has been selling and planting peony roots for several weeks. He plans to use his proceeds for a trip to a Youth in Governance citizenship program in Juneau. A recent sunny day found him planting a root for Jennifer Delzer off of Auburn Drive.
“Peonies are my favorite flower,” Delzer said. As Caleb’s mother, Tami Seekins, is her friend, Delzer decided to support the project. “A friend and a favorite flower,” she said. “How can it get better than that?”
Delzer is slowly moving her flower beds to all perennials. “I like pretty things, but not all the work,” she said. “The annuals are taxing me. My goal is to plant one peony a year till the bed is full.”
Seekins is happy her children learned a new skill and that more people are planting peonies. “We hope to make Fairbanks a more beautiful place,” she said.
This column is provided as a service by the UAF School of Natural Resources and Extension and the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. Nancy Tarnai is the school and station’s public information officer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.