When Leroy and Rita Jo Shoultz settled on 14 acres near Fritz Creek, the top priority was making an abandoned log cabin habitable for their family and learning to live without running water or electricity.
Today, the couple’s holdings have spread to 27 acres with a large portion for 12,000-15,000 peony plants ready to burst into bloom. Once they do, between July and August, the flowers, with unmistakable beauty and stamped with the Victorian meaning of “bashfulness,” will fill orders from around the world, thanks to the Shoultzes’ hard work learning everything they can from the growing to the selling of peonies.
For Rita Jo, the joy that comes from owning Alaska Best Peony is simple.
“I like watching them grow. It’s just a miracle,” Shoultz said.
On Tuesday, she and Leroy will be honored as grand marshals in Homer’s July Fourth parade. It also is a way for the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center, parade sponsor, to celebrate Homer as a “city of peonies.”
“Peony farmers have been very, very generous and donated hundreds of peony plants for any business wanting flowers,” Jan Knutson, the chamber’s visitor center manager, said of local growers’ participation in an effort to beautify Homer.
A beautification task force, comprised of numerous business representatives including Shoultz, has been hard at work for a year, resulting in several new murals on the sides of businesses and numerous flowers added to the downtown area.
The chamber’s visitor guide includes a section on the “city of peonies,” highlighting an industry that supplies peonies to all 50 states, as well as some overseas markets.
“It was just a natural to have the (July Fourth parade) theme ‘Homer in bloom, city of peonies,’” Knutson said.
When Pat Holloway, formerly of the Georgeson Botanical Garden at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, began researching peonies in Alaska in 2001, she discovered that the plants bloomed July through September, later than other locations in the world. Holloway knew of the Shoultzes through Fritz Creek Gardens, a retail garden center the couple opened in 1996, and turned to Shoultz to share her findings and involve her in the research.
“Dr. Holloway asked if I’d do a trial in 2006. So I put 3,500 (plants) out and it was a challenge. That’s all I was going to do, but then our son, Shannon, had an interest, and so we decided we needed to have more than 3,500,” said Shoultz. “Now, we’re shipping all over the Lower 48 and Canada. We have customers in Hong Kong and Singapore. And right now we’re doing research for a customer in the United Kingdom. I don’t know if we’ll be shipping there this year or not, but they’re asking us to if we have the peonies to do it.”
Shoultz has traveled to Washington, D.C., personally delivering 400 of Alaska Perfect Peony’s flowers to the nation’s capital, where they graced desks and special events. She recently was at the airport at 6:30 a.m. to send a box of flowers for a meeting in the state’s capital. They’ve been carried by brides and brightened family events, been bouquets at the Homer Chamber of Commerce and been gifts for clients of Hospice of Homer.
In addition to shipping what Alaska Perfect Peony grows, Shoultz also ships for other local growers with the help of a half dozen employees.
Beth Van Sandt of Scenic Place Peonies is part of a local peony marketing group representing four farms.
“The whole premise is to promote awareness of American-grown flowers,” said Van Sandt, a founding member of the Certified American Grown movement. Through that connection, she is holding a workshop with Kelly Shore, owner and lead designer of Petals by the Shore, in Washington, D.C., on July 28, a “Field to Vase” dinner on July 29 and a public tour of her peony farm on July 30.
Van Sandt estimates there are 30-40 peony growers in and around Homer.
“Quite a few farms are just now starting to grow into production,” she said. “It takes three to five years to get plants mature enough to start harvesting.”
According to the Alaska Peony Growers Association, the state’s cool growing season and cool soil produce large blooms and color saturation, but what sets Homer’s peonies apart?
“I think first of all we don’t have the real extremes they have in other places. We don’t have 40 below or 70 below (zero) like in Fairbanks. Because we have a more mean temperature, we’re doing really good here,” said Shoultz. Even considering Homer’s differing elevations and the impact that can have, she said, “We really do have the best peonies in the state.”
For anyone interested in raising peonies, Shoultz emphasized the need for patience.
“First of all, there’s a waiting period. You have to be willing to work and put money into it for three to five years. And you need to do some research. It’s hard to make it work,” she said.
In the days leading up to July, when Alaska Perfect Peony’s buds open and the busiest season begins, Shoultz keeps busy in her fields, removing hundreds of thousands of buds from the side of her plants’ stems, ensuring “the main bloom gets really big.”
Her husband is busy building a new office that will be close to three temperature-controlled coolers.
And does Rita Jo, now in her 70s, think about doing something different?
“No. I love it,” she said. “I think it keeps me healthy and it’s just so much fun.”
McKibben Jackinsky is a freelance writer who lives in Homer. She can be reached at email@example.com.