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Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Botanizing in Alaska: Peonies

Herbaceous Peonies
Peonies are a well-known early spring flower here in Minnesota. They jump out of the ground early and set about producing a wonderful, but short, bloom display. If you're lucky, the foliage will stick around for the rest of the year, but no later blooms will ever form. They don't grow in the South because the plants need a deep winter cold to trigger development of flower buds.

Herbaceous Peony
What isn't so well-known around here is that they represent the first agricultural export industry in Alaska. Peonies can survive dramatic cold. They shrug off the -60F winters of central Alaska as if it was a balmy -20F. The cold and long winters do delay when the plants start blooming, so they're blooming in mid-to-late summer - a time when no other grower can produce peony blooms. Pair the timing advantage with the huge flowers produced by the plants when growing in near 24-hour sunlight and you have the start of a great business model. If you want peony flowers in July through September, you will have to get them from Alaska... for upwards of $4 a stem because of the dramatic demand for them.

While we were in town, we decided to visit the small Georgeson Botanical Garden at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. It was here where the initial research about how to grow peonies in Alaska took place, thus it was here where the entire Alaskan peony industry... took root.  (Sorry, I couldn't help it.)

The common peonies are called herbaceous peonies because they don't grow woody stems and die down to the ground each winter. There are so-called "tree peonies" that grow into long-lived medium-sized shrubs, but they're not so cold-hardy and can be expensive to get.

Intersectional Peony #1
Intersectional Peony #2
There are also the intersectional peonies, derived from hybrids of  the herbaceous and tree peonies. They have a herbaceous style of growth, but produce stronger stems that are better able to hold the heavy flowers upright. They also introduce some yellow and orange shades into the more typical whites and pinks of herbaceous peonies. Unfortunately, the intersectional peonies are strongly sterile, so it is difficult to do breeding work with them. New intersectional hybrids have to be created, rather than simply breeding among the ones we already have.

I wonder if the sterility could be resolved by a genome duplication step (the-biologist-is-in.blogspot.com/2015/01/hybrid-sterility-and-speciation.html). The resulting plants would still remain reproductively isolated from the more common herbaceous peonies, but then active breeding work could be performed by more typical means. With the ability to recombine traits in these plants, I could imagine the yellow and pink pigments being blended into a lovely bright orange someday.