Even in countries where poverty is widespread and the economy is weak, people still buy flowers. Our fascination with flowers goes back as far as history can take us.
The sight of a flower shop or street stall brimming with color can lift our spirits. The sight and scent of a bouquet on a hall table is a special welcome when the front door opens to a visitor. Scientific studies have confirmed that adding flowers and plants to a dreary, sterile environment such as an office, business, nursing home, school or hospital has a measurable positive outcome in improved mental and physical health, energy and even mortality.
The cut flower market worldwide has been estimated to be worth $40 billion, and in the United States alone the retail value is more than $6 billion. So where do all these flowers come from and how do they get here?
The United States imports flowers by air primarily from Colombia, followed by Ecuador, Costa Rica, Thailand, Mexico and Guatemala. The Netherlands, Brazil and Chile are providers as well.
Many European countries are way ahead of the United States in per capita flower consumption. For example, just 28 percent of U.S. households regularly buy flowers, compared with 76 percent of German households.
I became interested in this huge industry and the obsessions that created it when I read the story of the Dutch “Tulipomania” in the 17th century that spiraled out of control and caused an economic crash that almost destroyed the financial stability of the country.
A few years ago, while in Australia for six months, I was lucky enough to get a glimpse of this business in action. I was out for a morning walk when I passed by a farm that included several large greenhouses. My curiosity made me bold enough to walk in and ask if I might speak to the owner. He pointed me in the direction of one of the greenhouses. There I met Brian who was caring for what appeared to be thousands of young plants of the same variety. He explained that he had bred the plants himself and was hoping to sell them to landscape designers in Florida. He had used tissue culture to multiply this unique variety.
Then he invited me to go with him to the wholesale market in the nearby large town of Fern Gully. (Yes, that truly is its name.) At 6 a.m. the next day, we were on our way. After a 30-minute drive through a breathtaking forest of giant trees festooned with vines and lush with ferns, we arrived at a huge warehouse on the outskirts of town.
As early as it was, the place was already full of wholesale flower vendors, cut flowers, greenery, houseplants, arrangements, potted trees and flowers, as well as Christmas decorations as it indeed was the December market for florists, nurseries, growers, designers and anyone else in the business of selling flowers.
Brian introduced me to a well-known radio and television gardening program host named Jane Edmonson. We had a good talk about Master Gardeners and she was keen to hear about my experience living in Australia. This visit resulted in an invitation to be interviewed on Jane’s radio program the next day.
Another travel opportunity took me to an orchid farm in Costa Rica. While on a January tour with a group of Master Gardeners, we decided to stop at a sign on the highway about an orchid farm. We were glad we did! A guide showed us around, explained the methods of propagation (tissue culture again), the types of orchids commercially valuable, proper care and the running of the business. Apparently the farm is financed by German money so most of the flowers go to Germany. The tour was both informative and interesting.
I would like to encourage gardeners to take advantage of opportunities they encounter while traveling and continue to learn more about the “business” that creates so much health and enjoyment in our lives.
A WSU Master Gardeners of Chelan County column appears weekly in the At Home section. Gloria Kupferman is one of three columnists featured.