Depending on who you ask, Homer is known by a lot of different names: “Cosmic Hamlet by the Sea” or “Halibut Fishing Capital of the World.”
Now, for the fourth year in a row, it’s also the “City of Peonies.” Homer is in the midst of its annual peony festival, which takes place through the month of July.
So, how did this city at the end of the road become such a peony hub in Alaska? The story begins a few miles up East End Road, on Rita Jo Shoultz’s farm.
It’s a property Shoultz has lived on for decades. She moved there with her husband, Leroy, in 1968 and ran the Fritz Creek Gardens store nearby.
About 20 years ago, Shoultz connected with Patricia Hollowell, a friend and researcher at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who was growing peonies in the botanical gardens there. She wanted to see if peonies — a flower that likes cold winters — could thrive in Alaska.
“Along the way, we realized that our peonies come into season when fresh-cut peonies aren’t available anywhere else in the world,” Shoultz said.
That seasonality is what makes Alaska’s peonies so special. Peonies in Alaska are usually ready to pick in early July — months later than other peony hubs and just in time for the mid-summer wedding season.
“So that was a niche, obviously,” Shoultz said.
At the time, there were no other commercial peony growers in Alaska. Shoultz said there was a big learning curve.
“I did a lot of lecturing all over the state, ’cause it was a pretty hot topic,” she said. “Just telling people what I’d learned so they wouldn’t make the same mistakes I did.”
A local industry blossoms
Those education efforts paid off. Today, Shoultz’s farm, Alaska Perfect Peony, is one of over 200 peony outfits in Alaska.
Homer has 26 farms of its own, said Jan Knutson, who directs the Homer Chamber Visitors’ Center and staffs a Homer peony task force.
She said the task force first started meeting in 2016 to beautify Pioneer Avenue by planting peonies up and down the street. In 2017, then-mayor Bryan Zak designated Homer the City of Peonies.
But she said it wasn’t until the pandemic that Homer’s identity as the City of Peonies began to really crystallize.
“One of the goals of the task force was to have a peony celebration, or a peony festival,” Knutson said. “And then we were hit with the COVID pandemic.”
She said the Homer Chamber of Commerce was looking at events it could hold outdoors.
“And so I picked up the phone and I called Rita Jo, and I said, ‘Is this a good time to start having some farm tours?’ And she said, ‘Absolutely,’” she said.
The chamber looped in businesses all over town. Today, local manufacturer NOMAR makes peony bags. Local breweries and meaderies craft special peony-inspired beverages. The chamber also works with local artists to draw up festival designs and logos.
Knutson said the peony celebration today is part of Homer’s festival tradition, on top of annual events like the Shorebird Festival and World Arts Festival.
And she said it honors an industry that has become significant in Homer — both because of peony exports and tourism.
“People are scheduling their vacations in the Lower 48 just to come here for the peony festival,” Knutson said.
Weather delays peony harvests
Shoultz’s farm is one of several that’s doing farm tours for the festival.
This year, they had to push some tours later in the season due to the cold summer weather that’s delaying harvests all over Southcentral.
Shoultz sells flowers to grocery stores and florists in the Lower 48. And she said she’s not sure they’ve ever been so late to get shipments out the door.
“It is no fun to call a bride and say, ‘Guess what, we don’t have any peonies for you,” she said. “All their life, they want to have a peony for their wedding, and now they can’t get it.’ Every time we take a reservation, or order, earlier in the season, we always tell them it’s always subject to Mother Nature.”
She said this year, her flowers will be ready later in the season. That’s not a problem when it comes to demand from buyers— she said the later the flowers are, the rarer they’ll be.
But it does create an issue for her staff.
“Because you plan on your season and hire your people, and then there are no flowers now,” she said. “So we’ve been doing work in the gardens. And then they’re going to be gone when the flowers start coming in.”
Now that she’s not the only game in town anymore, Shoultz sends brides up to Fairbanks, where the flowers are ready for picking.
She said there are other benefits to having more peony farmers in the area, too. They can order boxes of materials in bulk and work together to get grants. She said Alaska’s peony market will never become oversaturated, since there’s so much demand.
A lot has changed since Shoultz, now 81, first started farming. But one thing hasn’t. She said she doesn’t plan to stop working on her farm anytime soon.
“You’ll probably find me out on the field someday all withered up, dead,” she said. “But I love it and it keeps me in good shape, it keeps me healthy.”
Homer’s peony celebration, including farm tours at Alaska Perfect Peony, continues through the end of the month. You can find more on the Homer Chamber of Commerce website.