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 stroll through the area immerses you in 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 upright shrubs standing at attention at curbside.
Sidestepping delivery men, we also peered into shop windows where towering palms, tropical houseplants and exotic orchids were stacked floor to ceiling.
A centuries old tradition
Today’s flower district is heir to a rich tradition dating back to the 19th century. Many of the vendors have been in business for generations. The city’s floral trade began on a ferry dock on East 34th street that later became known as the Chelsea Flower Market. Wholesalers gathered there to buy flowers that were brought in by ferry from growers on Long Island. They then resold their floral purchases 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. This included ‘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 boxes of flora and fauna, placing them on racks and positioning them in front of the various wholesale establishments. A steady stream of delivery trucks, emblazoned with nursery logos, pulled up alongside us to double-park on the already congested street.
We had arrived at 9:30 am, but the real action starts around 5. That’s when designers, florists and other professionals start arriving to choose from the day’s first deliveries. Many have developed special relationships with wholesalers over the years who supply them with rare and exotic specimens.
A peek into International Garden Inc. transported us back to the early 20th century. The shop’s floor-to-ceiling white tiles, old fashioned lettering and wall-mounted ferns offer a glimpse into what the New York City flower district might have looked like in its heyday. We watched as professionals made their selections from tables stocked high with tropical foliage. Elsewhere, designers gave direction to staff as they rapidly assembled floral arrangements.
As we toured the market, the dense greenery 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, the upright packages were almost as tall as we were.
While the 5 am crowd is strictly made up of designers and florists, by mid morning 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, making 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.