Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Watch for new peony varieties at botanical garden

Itoh peony "Bartzella"
by Pat Holloway director of the Georgeson Botanical Garden and SNRAS horticulture professor

Last season, we were contacted by a Canadian company, Plantek International, Inc., whose specialty is tissue culture propagation of plants. Since tissue culture is a very expensive method of producing plants, it is often used for high value plants such as orchids and slow-to-grow plants such as ferns. Plantek International grows a wide variety of plants including terrestrial orchids and peonies – not just any peonies, but the fancy, and very expensive ones called Itoh hybrids.

Itoh hybrid peonies are not a group of plants that most Alaskans have tried because they are expensive ($30 to well above $100 per root), and they are not considered hardy. The peony types most Alaskans grow are classed as herbaceous hybrids. They are mostly selections of Paeonia lactiflora from China and sometimes P. officinalis from Europe. China is also home to tree peonies, interesting bushy species with woody stems.

The tree peony is the most revered peony in all of China but is not hardy in any but the warmest microclimates in Alaska. The name Itoh hybrid peony honors Japanese breeder, Toichi Itoh, who was the first person to successfully hybridize herbaceous and tree peonies. According to Harvey Buchite, American Peony Society, the plants exhibit the habits of both tree and herbaceous peonies. The foliage and flowers resemble the tree peony, but, most of their stems die back to the ground in winter like herbaceous peonies. Since Itoh’s first success, hybridizers have created new flower colors including pink, orange tones, striped, splashed, flared patterns, and varieties that change color from dark pink to yellow as the flower ages.

Plantek International would like to claim that their Itoh hybrids from tissue culture are as hardy as herbaceous peonies. They searched the internet to find the coldest location where peonies could grow and found us. They sent us 145 peony roots, eight different cultivars, more than $7,000 worth of peony roots, to test in the botanical garden and at Lilydale Farm in North Pole. They were planted in the perennial trial plots in mid- September, and now we wait.

This winter hasn’t been too bad, temperature-wise so far. But the insulating snow cover is a bit skimpy. In a year or so, if you see a yellow peony in the trial plots, you’ll know the answer to their question.

This article is reprinted from the Georgeson Botanical Garden Review.

Related reading:

An Introduction to Harvesting and Selling Alaska Cut Flower Peonies, AFES MP 2008-03, April 2008, by Jim Auer and Pat Holloway

Peony-A Future crop for Alaska? AFES MP 2004-01, January 2004, by Doreen Fitzgerald

Production and Transportation Considerations in the Export of Peonies from Fairbanks, Alaska, senior thesis by Marie A. Klingman, April 2002

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