New York City’s historic flower district
It’s not every day you visit a city and wind up in a tropical forest. But that’s exactly the case if you happen to be walking along a certain stretch of New York City’s West 28th street in Manhattan. There, amidst the hustle and bustle of big city life, a vibrant community of plant wholesalers and retailers set up shop each morning, transforming the city’s teeming sidewalks into a bona fide urban jungle.
Located just south of McDonalds, New York City’s flower district covers a little over a block between 6th and 7th Avenues. But what it may lack in size, it more than makes up for in appearance. The garden oasis is home to about two dozen vendors specializing in everything from fresh-cut flowers and indoor plants to exotic orchids, tropical foliage, spring flowering branches and floral supplies.
A walk through the area immediately plunges you into the smell of fresh greenery and sweet floral fragrances. During our visit, we navigated around colorful jumbles of summer bedding plants, metal buckets overflowing with flowers and giant shrubs standing at attention at curbside.
And sidestepping delivery men, we peered into humid shops where towering palms, tropical houseplants and rows of exotic orchids were sorted by variety and stacked floor to ceiling.
A centuries old tradition
Today’s flower district is heir to a rich tradition dating back to the 19th century and many of the vendors have been in business for generations. The city’s original floral trade began on a ferry dock on East 34th street that eventually became known as the Chelsea Flower Market. Wholesalers would gather at the dock to sell flowers that were brought in by ferry from growers on Long Island. The mostly German, Italian, Polish and Greek immigrants then sold their fresh merchandise from tiny shops and wooden pushcarts to retailers throughout the city.
As demand rose for cut flowers, many of the wholesalers relocated to West 28th street to gain access to more affluent buyers and to be closer to Ladies’ Mile, home to many of the day’s most fashionable department stores, including Bergdorf Goodman and Lord and Taylor. New York City’s flower district was born.
New York City Flower Market circa 1904
By the mid 20th century, the market was flourishing with around 60 vendors. According to a 2004 New York Times article, by 1977 more flowers were being bought and sold in New York than anywhere else in the world with the exception of Amsterdam.
The floral rush hour
On the morning of our visit, deliverymen were rapidly unloading bundles of cut flowers and tropical houseplants from trucks and rolling plant racks into position in front of the various wholesale establishments. While we circumnavigated around colorful flats of plants, a steady stream of white vans, emblazoned with the logos of area nurseries, pulled up alongside us to double-park on the already congested street.
Although we had arrived at 9:30 am, the real action begins around 5. That’s when designers, florists and other professionals start appearing to select from the day’s first deliveries. Many have developed special relationships with wholesale establishments over the years who regularly supply them with rare and unusual specimens.
A peek into International Garden Inc. is a journey back to the early 20th century. Its white tiled walls with black banding, old fashioned lettering and wall-mounted staghorn ferns add to the old-time charm, providing a glimpse into what the New York City flower district might have looked like in its heyday. We observed a number of professionals standing lost in thought before tables stocked high with tropical foliage while elsewhere designers provided direction to staff as they rapidly assembled arrangements.
As we walked through the market, towering palms, clipped yews and upright box temporarily muffled the sounds of the city. In front of one store we stopped to admire the wide variety of spring-flowering branches including cherry, forsythia and pussy willows wrapped tightly in bundles. Leaning closely together, the stacked packages were almost as tall as we were.
While the 5 am crowd is strictly composed of professional designers and florists, by mid morning when the market opens to the general public, the sidewalks are teeming with everyday people. The atmosphere is bustling and sociable, with lots of interaction between buyers and sellers. This is partly due to the fact that none of the plants are priced, which makes it necessary to approach their owners to bargain.
Caribbean Cuts, located at 120 West 28th, specializes in unusual tropical flowers and foliage from Puerto Rico. The store’s impressive merchandise includes gigantic elephant ears, eucalyptus and palm fronds as well as exotic florals. Now in its 12th year, Caribbean Cuts grows all its own plants on farms it owns in the Caribbean.
Exotic palms for sale at NYC’s Caribbean Cuts
My daughter nicknamed this alley “Plants waiting to get into the club,” which seemed somehow appropriate for the city.
Sadly today, the number of vendors in New York’s flower district has dwindled to only around two dozen shops, battered by pressure to turn valuable real estate into more profitable ventures. There has been talk about moving the market, but so far no new location has been identified. Meanwhile the vendors continue to do a lively trade, supplying fresh florals to the top designers and hotels in the city.
The New York City Flower District is open Monday through Saturday. Arrive early to get in on the action. Most vendors close up shop around noon.