Peony continues its rise to prominence

Peony industry veteran Aad Vernooy.

The peony market remains buoyant despite the challenges of climate change, an ever-increasing regulatory burden and diminishing crop protection and herbicide options.

On Thursday, 24 November 2022, bulb and perennial growers’ cooperative CNB, with horticultural supplier Royal Agrifirm Group GMN, held their annual Peony Event (finally back after a two-year break due to Covid-19) at CNB’s preparation and cooling premises in Bovenkarspel, the Netherlands; in yesteryear the venue of the iconic Westfriese Flora show.

Around 160 growers gathered to hear expert advice and comments from market analysts, business consultants, auction reps, sector lobbyists and crop technicians.

2022 was a good year for the peonies

Paul Peters, CNB’s manager of intermediary sales, Dennis Meijaard, general manager of sector flower bulbs at Royal Agrifirm Group GMN, and peony industry veteran Aad Vernooy, treated their audience (a mix of seasoned veterans and newcomers in the field of peony cultivation) to an afternoon programme full of insight and tips for peony success.

For CNB’s trade in peony planting stock material – read bare-rooted peony plants – 2022 was a good year. CNB’s rep for peonies and perennials, Gijs Laan, referenced the variety ‘Coral Sunset’ yielding €1.50, up from €0,80 in 2020. “That’s a positive sign for the industry as a whole,” he said, adding, “In the more expensive white peony range, prices were somewhat down, but I cannot explain why. Upon harvesting between August and September, the quality was superb, and the supplies were good. At the same time, we notice the earliness of presales. CNB currently (end November 2022) has a 2023 peony presale running. In comparison, in the 2020/2021 season, peony presales only began in February/March.”

Laan anticipates that inflation will impact the demand side, possibly leading to a price decrease for bread-and-butter varieties such as ‘Sarah Bernhardt’, ‘Coral Sunset’ and ‘Coral Charm ’and high-end cultivars alike.

In 2022, the Netherlands experienced a long hot and dry summer; time will tell how the full effects of the long-lasting drought will have on the peony fields this spring. In particular, when there was a hosepipe ban at the height of the summer impeding peony growers in the provinces of Limbourg and Noord-Brabant from irrigating their crops. Laan warns that this may influence the quality of the 2023 harvest.

Smooth sailing

Mario Heemskerk, an auctioneer at Royal FloraHolland Aalsmeer, said there’s never a dull moment in the peony trade, with 2022 standing out because, contrary to 2021 when the spring’s late arrival delayed crops to bloom, the 2022 peony season was ‘smooth sailing’. He emphasised, “Growing conditions were ideal, and the average €0,52 per stem in the top selling season (week 18-27) was by all means good.”
At Royal FloraHolland, 90,865,612 peony stems changed hands in 2022, slightly down from 92,808,214 in 2021.

Under normal circumstances, peonies destined for clock sales are packed with their stems in water containers. Upon request from growers, Royal FloraHolland conducted a dry-pack trial in which six peony producers participated. They used boxes in which they placed their flowers horizontally.

By the end of the trial, the number of peony boxes totalled 818, equalling a meagre 0,14 per cent of total supplies. In other crops, once the summer heat sets in, growers increasingly move to dry-packed peonies to avoid flowers unfolding too quickly.

Heemskerk attributed the limited success of dry peony packing to the absence of retail purchasers at the auction clock. “There are very few of them at the clock, and clock buyers generally don’t want dry-packed blooms as they want to touch and feel the product pre-auctioning.”

Paeonia lactiflora’s ‘Many Happy Returns’ is a peony variety in a vivid red that is not sensitive to colour fading. In comparison, the reds of other popular red varieties like ‘Henry Bockstoce’, ‘Red Charm’ and ‘Old Faithful’ tend to be a darker shade. ‘Many Happy Returns’ comes in a bright, passionate red.

Global crop protection market in motion

As 2022 drew to a close, Joris Roskam, a crop protection manager at Royal Agrifirm Group GMN, advised peony professionals to keep watch of a ‘global crop protection market in motion’.

At the same time, a world map emerged from his PowerPoint presentation. At the top, in the middle, the EU zone, in fiery red, is becoming an area isolated from the rest of the world, which is featured in neutral grey. He commented, “By adopting a hazard-based approach to chemicals since 2011, we differentiate ourselves from the rest of the globe, where legislation is based on risk assessments.”

In Europe, Maximum Residue Level (MRL) is the maximum concentration of a pesticide residue in or on food or feed of plant and animal origin that is legally tolerated when a plant protection product (PPP) is applied correctly. The Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) and Non-Observed Adverse Effect Level (NOAEL) are important concepts in the hazard assessment of a chemical, calculated by a safety factor which is commonly 100.

Advocates of the hazard-based approach argue that eliminating hazards and replacing them, if possible, offers proper protection for the planet and its people. Opponents, however, complain that the EU’s crop protection market is overregulated, bureaucratic and prescriptive, sustaining that limiting exposure to a toxic chemical isn’t a problem.

Roskam did not take a stand in this very complex debate limiting himself to the conclusion that the EU no longer looks upon sound entrepreneurship and that between July 2018 and September 2021, authorities assessed 103 chemicals, of which 25 per cent passed the test. Another 44 biological substances were evaluated, of which 77 per cent were admitted.

Under its Farm to Fork and Green Deal strategies, and with mandatory Integrated Pest Management (IPM) anchored in EU legislation, farmers will soon see their pesticide cabinets empty rapidly, with 50 per cent fewer pesticide options available by 2025.

On 22 July 2022, the European Commission adopted proposals for the Sustainable Use Regulation (SUR). Roskam noted, “This movement is unstoppable. So, as a sector, we need to join forces to develop alternative options such as biopesticides and biostimulants. Biopesticides contain naturally occurring substances that control pests in a non-toxic manner. Biostimulants in the Netherlands are regulated under fertiliser legislation and do not have direct actions against pests and diseases but act on the plant’s vigour. The 2015-2030 forecast per world region for both categories anticipates exponential growth.”

Regarding global crop protection legislation, there’s always the possibility that laws could vary and change, be removed, or be updated, so globally operating peony professionals must ensure they are on top of recent happenings in their industry and geographical region.

Advantages of going green

Roskam’s colleague, Gerbrant Schilder, a flower bulb expert, explained that there are three good reasons to use biological products. Chemistry will continue to move away from the market, and biological products can help reduce crop protection’s environmental impact. Biological crop protection also helps a grower manage resistance, which has been a problem when using chemicals.

He distinguished basic substances. These are everyday food products such as vinegar, milk, and beer with recognised effects against agents affecting plants.

Charge, for example, is based on chitin, a crustacean by-product. This product enhances the plant’s defence system and must be applied preventatively. Urtibasic, from Spanish manufacturer Idainature, is a nettle extract that repels aphids and Thrips and leaves hardly any residues in crops.

Karma from Certis is a water-soluble fungicide containing 850g/kg of potassium hydrogen carbonate to control botrytis. The product also has an EAMU for powdery mildew.

Toreda spray powder by BASF is based on Bacillus amyloliquefaciens, a species of bacteria known for protecting plants against various plant pathogens, including Botrytis and Fusarium.

Aad Vernooy noted that when trialling new crop protection products, what’s frequently overlooked is the baseline for comparison. He suggested that growers should always cater for a controlled crop.

Paeonia lactiflora ‘Monsieur Jules Élie’. Though there’s no written proof, this popular peony variety is probably named after the French painter and Prix de Rome winner, Jules-Élie Delaunay (1828-1891).

Weed control

Jeroen Groot, the peony crop technician at Agrifirm, informed his audience that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) extended glyphosate’s existing approval until 15 December 2023. He said, “The tricky thing is that glyphosate is heavily politicised, and its future is uncertain. At the same time, Roundup Dynamic is a more environmentally friendly formula but must be applied cautiously and only when the crop is fully dormant and under dry conditions. For the future, a possible alternative for Roundup can be Quikdown by Nutrifarm, to which oil must be added.”

Devrinol and AZ are residual herbicides controlling various annual types of grass and broad-leaved weeds (such as chickweed, poppy, fat-hen and knotgrass) in ornamental plant production and tree plantations and can best be applied in December.

For preemergence control of many annual types of grass and some broadleaf weeds, Fresco and Bettix are efficient.
Oblix controls sticky weed (Galium aparine), Vivendi (clopyralid), thistles and mayweed. The latter has a period of use running from 1 March to 1 September to protect from groundwater contamination.
Post-emergence weed control can best be done through mechanical weeding and, if needed, using a mix of Goltix Queen, CorzalSE, plus robbester oil.

Massive legislation

Anneke van Dijk and Arno Engels from sector body LTO Nederland Trees, Perennials and Summer Flowers talked to the peony professionals about upcoming legislation of which the 139-page, 7th Nitrates Action Programme and its addendum concern the protection of waters against pollution by nitrates from agricultural sources. According to LTO Nederland, this directive places a heavy financial burden on the sector; it is disruptive and impossible to fulfil, which is why LTO sent a derogation request to the European Union.

The EU’s implementing decision stipulates that farmers and horticulturists need to take steps to maintain a green cover on land within three to five metres along watercourses. This act is effective from 1 January 2024; businesses on loess and sandy soils will also need to grow catch crops or green manures. The latter must be grown between successive production crops to provide ground cover, capture soil nutrients and improve soil characteristics or benefit the following crop.

The good news for peony growers is that their crop has been grouped into the ‘winter and early crops, ’ meaning they are exempt from planting cover crops.

In wrapping up, Paul Peters, CNB’s manager of intermediary sales, made his way to the stage, pointing to a vase filled with breath-taking peony blooms, expressing his hope that despite the patchwork of laws and regulatory burden, growers would still be able to appreciate the unmatched beauty of peonies and take joy in growing them.

This article was first published in the February 2023 edition of FloraCulture International.

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