Here comes the rockstar of all flowers, the captivating Peony. Brides, boyfriends, lovers of flowers and all things beautiful make verbal requests to local florists no matter what the month but alas, the almighty peony when it is in season for the cut flower market signals that it must finally be May.
What’s in a Name?
Two mythological names explain the origin of the peony. One more popular has the flower deriving its name from Paeon. Paeon, doctor to the gods had extracted a milky liquid from the root of a peony that cured Pluto. Sounds like a good doc, right? Unfortunately, Asclepius , god of medicine and healing out of jealousy threatened to end Peon’s life. Thankfully, in steps Zeus to save the day. Zeus turned Paeon into a beautiful flower to spare the wrath of Asclepius.
Myth #2 links the flower to Paeonia whose beauty sent Apollo into a heated tizzy. Aphrodite out of jealousy then turned human into flower.
To provide descriptive order to the Peony in it’s many variations, the American Peony Society’s break down includes 6 variants to describe its flower form: SINGLE, SEMI-DOUBLE, FULL DOUBLE, JAPANESE, ANEMONE AND BOMB.
Generally the species is broken down into three growth types the Herbaceous, Tree (Woody) and Itoh (Intersectional), the latter being a cross between the Herbaceous and Tree forms.
The Ant Factor
The old wive’s tale that peonies need ants in order to help them bloom just isn’t true. Peonies will bloom on their own regardless of the ant’s presence. Ants in fact are attracted to the nectar that a peony produces from its sepals when it is in bud form. The nectar provides other nourishments for the critters as well: amino acids, lips and other organic compounds. The peonies in turn benefit from the ants staving off other harmful insects like aphids and thrips.
The growing season for peonies generally lasts from April-June but with demand many horticulturalists from abroad are venturing to meet this growing demand by farming peonies outside of the traditional growing season. Unlike roses which can be grown year round in places like Equador, the challenge with peonies is that they require a period of cold dormancy to flower well.
Alaska as an example has emerged as a peony market as its climate zone allows for harvesting in the months of July, August and September, well after our season has finished. Although grown in Alaskan gardens since the turn of the century, the turning point to harvest peonies for the cut flower market came in the mid 1990’s when an Oregon farmer visited the state to help potential growers with its particular cultivation acumen.
Fast forward to 2004 when four Alaskan farmers experienced an economical albiet modest level of success. They were able to share their knowledge, trials and errors to the point where today Alaska boasts 136 peony farms. Fairbanks, Palmer and the Kenai Peninsula are the 3 top producing regions of peonies in Alaska. A wait period of 2-5 years is standard before farmers can harvest their first crop. In 2018, Alaskan peony growers collectively sold 350, 000 stems. As a comparison the gold marker- Netherlands sold in excess of 78 million stems in the same year.