Bloom Boom: Juneau farmer joins Alaska peony rush

Interior Alaska has about 50 commercial peony farmers and now a Southeast grower is about to give the cash crop a shot. The flowers are supposed to be the next big boom in Alaska exports.

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Peonies from Brad Fluetsch’s home garden. The shrubs can take up to five years to mature.  (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)
Peonies from Brad Fluetsch’s home garden. The shrubs can take up to five years to mature. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

Brad Fluetsch’s home garden is pretty idyllic. Hummingbirds and bees flit around a colorful array of ornamental plants, yet the most valuable flower hasn’t even opened yet. It can take up to five years to get to this point.

“You grab it and you squeeze the bloom and if it feels like marshmallow, it’s just about ready to pick,” Fluetsch says.

Peonies are big and frilly. Picking one before it opens and refrigerating it can extend the flower’s vase life to more than 14 weeks. Its ability to withstand long travel is one of the reasons why some think peonies could be state’s next big export. Another reason is that the peony can’t be found anywhere but in Alaska in the late summer months.

Rainforest Peonies overlooks the Gastineau Channel on north Douglas Island. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)
Rainforest Peonies overlooks the Gastineau Channel on north Douglas Island. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

“That’s why we’re doing it,” he says. “Right now, there’s such a limited a supply of stems to the market.”

A short drive from Fluetsch’s house and a half-mile trek through muskeg, we arrive at 10 acres of beachfront property on north Douglas Island — the future site of Rainforest Peonies.

“This is basically a clearcut,” he says. “You have big old brush piles of stumps and logs. Some windblown trees and then some trees we haven’t cleaned up yet.”

Last year, Alaska-grown peonies were exported to 34 states. Each stem can fetch anywhere from $2-$7, and the buyer pays shipping costs.

Not too long ago the flower was considered old-fashioned, but like anything old, it can be made new again. Especially if the one selling it is America’s wedding tastemaker, Martha Stewart.

Fairbanks horticulturist Patricia Holloway says the celebrity has done a lot to promote and market peonies.

“That’s one of her favorite flowers,” she says. “And it is the number one bride’s flower in the United States.”

Holloway is a tastemaker in her own right. She’s known as the “godmother of Alaska peonies.” Several years ago, she caught wind that the flowers could grow here and fill a gap in the market.

“I was getting phone calls almost immediately from places like London wanting Alaska peonies because no one could believe that we had them in July,” she says.

Alaska Peony Growers Association already test marketed them to Taiwan. Red peonies are a favorite in parts of Asia and whites sell best in the U.S. and Canada. Alaska can’t support the international market just yet, but Holloway says that may change.

She estimates the number of commercial growers could double in the next few years.

“Just like the gold rush years and years ago. People came north trying to make some money,” she says. “There are going to be people who succeed and there are going to be people who fail.”

At the farm, Brad Fluetsch plunges a shovel into coffee-colored dirt.

“We could grow just about anything in this,” he says.

About 200 peony beds will be built on the site. He says one of the challenges of growing the flower in Southeast is soil drainage. He’s barged over several tons of sand to fix that. A fungus called botrytis could be another problem.

Once the operation is in full swing, Fluetsch says he could earn up to $800,000 in a year, but there are risks involved. Peonies have to freeze in order to bloom and warm winters could be detrimental.

“If it happens in the first year, you’re out $20,000 in one year,” he says. “But if it happens to a mature crop … then you’re out a lot money for the roots plus five years.”

Rainforest Peonies first crop is expected in 2019.

The company could employee up to 15 people in Juneau once it’s fully operational. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)
The company could employee up to 15 people in Juneau once it’s fully operational. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)