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Alaska - a peony paradise?

In the Last Frontier. peonies mature at a time that no others in the world are blooming.

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Once upon a time a scientist in Fairbanks, Alaska, wondered out loud about an idea that seemed fantastical at the time.

Why not grow flowers in Alaska, put them on jet planes -- the state is one of the world's biggest air cargo hubs, after all -- and sell them around the world?

Alaska plus flowers equals lucrative business opportunity?

Not a natural association, perhaps. But as the result of her random query at a gardening conference, scientist Pat Holloway discovered a hot lead about Alaska's untapped, economic advantage in the global flower trade.

The advantage, in a word: peonies.

Chances are you've seen peonies in a bridal bouquet, hotel floral arrangement, or neighborhood garden. With huge, fluffy, fragrant blossoms in shades of pink, red, and white, they look like roses on steroids. Florists commonly sell them for $5 per stem.

A Lower 48 garden expert told Ms. Holloway, a University of Alaska Fairbanks horticulturist, that Alaska had a potential mother lode with its late-blooming peonies. His tip unleashed a wild chain of events that so far has involved:

-  Trips by Alaskans to learn the peony trade at farms in exotic locales, including Tasmania and New Zealand. Some of those growers plan to visit Alaska this summer to assist Railbelt peony growers with their harvests.

-  Pulse-racing conversations between Alaskans and anxious European flower brokers demanding thousands of peonies -- right now!

-  The creation of a loose-knit organization of pioneering Alaska peony farmers ranging from Fairbanks to Homer.


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