New York City’s Flower District: Green Oasis In A Concrete Jungle

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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. Continue reading

How to Keep Your Potted Plants In Shape All Summer

It’s that time of year again when we all head out to purchase summer flowers to plant in pots. And they all start out looking gorgeous. But, in no time the blooms fade and the stems turn long and leggy. As a garden designer, I find that this is one of the most frequent questions I am asked: What can I do to keep my potted plants in shape all summer? Continue reading

Why Lily of the Valley Is The Official May Day Flower

The bells of lily of the valley

Years ago I lived in Paris. One spring morning, I was awakened by a knock at the door followed by the sound of running footsteps on the stairs of my apartment building. Opening the door, I discovered a basket of tiny white flowers on my doorstep. I had just received my first brin de muguet, a gift of lilies of the valley, a flower exchanged each year in France on the first of May.

In France, lily of the valley (commonly know as muguet in French) has been given as a gift for centuries. Legend has it that the custom began in the mid 16th century when on May 1, 1561, King Charles IX received a sprig of the tiny flower as a token of good luck. He so liked the idea that he decided to start a tradition. From that day on, on the first of May, he presented bouquets of lilies of the valley to each of the ladies of his court. The Fête du Muguet (Lily of the Valley Day) was born.

Portrait of King Charles IX

Lily of the valley is one of May’s most celebrated flowers. Depending on the climate, it typically flowers in mid- to late-April and retains its blooms for most of May. The pint-sized plant consists of a single stalk of sweetly scented white or soft pink bell-shaped flowers enfolded within a pair of glossy, tongue-shaped leaves.

 

The story of Lily of the Valley and the Nightingale

There’s an old legend that tells the tale of how the first lily of the valley was in love with a nightingale. Every night the nightingale would come to the garden to sing. The lily of the valley was shy, though, and hid herself from the nightingale. In time, the bird grew lonely and flew away.

Alone in the garden, the lily of the valley waited in vain for the nightingale to return. She eventually grew so sad that she stopped blooming. She resumed flowering only when the nightingale reappeared in May and her happiness was restored.

Symbol of romance

In the early 20th century in France, it was customary for men to give bouquets of lilies of the valley as tokens of affection. They presented their gifts, in accordance with tradition, on the first of May. In their absence, the men sent romantic postcards with elaborate drawings of the flower accompanied by wishes of good luck. The ritual of sending Fête du Muguet cards is still practiced today.

A vintage Fête du Muguet card

 

How to grow lilies of the valley

Lilies of the valley are indigenous to temperate Eurasian climates and are believed to have originated in Japan. Spreading by tiny rhizomes underground, they naturalize quickly and can become invasive in gardens. Unless you’re up to digging out their roots to control them, it’s best to plant the flowers in their native woodland or in a contained area in the yard. Lilies of the valley prefer shade and moist, well-drained loamy soil and will lose their color, even browning, when planted in full sun.

Unimpeded, lily of the valley wills spread rapidly, but that’s not the only drawback. All parts of the plant are considered poisonous if ingested. When handling the plants, it’s best to wear gloves to prevent any residue from being transmitted to food. Symptoms of lily of the valley poisoning include stomachache and blurred vision.

Since it coincides with National Labor Day on the first of May, the Fête du Muguet is a public holiday in France. Sprigs and bouquets of lilies of the valley are sold everywhere from thousands of roadside stalls that spring up all over France. Sales of flowers on public streets, which are normally forbidden, are permitted on this day in honor of the long-standing tradition.

 

Valentines Day Begins at the Dutch Flower Auctions

Flower staging at Aalsmeer FloraHolland in Amsterdam

Today is Valentines Day, the annual festival of romantic love when many of us will be sending flowers. And even though we’ll be buying them locally, most of the blooms will have only just arrived from abroad. Ever wonder how flowers cut fresh in Europe, Africa and Israel can wind up for sale in America the very next day? The answer lies in the wonders of the Dutch Flower Auction.

A TRADING PLATFORM BUILT FOR SPEED

Over the past century, the Dutch have perfected a trading platform that can rapidly move millions of cut flowers around the world, making what until recently seemed impossible – delivery to North America within 24-hours from overseas.
How have they done this? By creating supply chains built for speed to accommodate flowers’ perishability and by establishing central distribution points for trade. The Dutch flower auction eliminates the middleman so buyers and sellers can deal with each other directly.

shutterstock_240912793The story begins with the arrival each day of millions of flowers to FloraHolland, a superpower in the floricultural world. The company runs six auction houses throughout the Netherlands and accounts for 90 percent of the Dutch floral trade. According to the latest statistics, in 2015 the Netherlands ranked first in the world in total flower bouquet exports by country, accounting for roughly 40 % of total flower bouquet exports worldwide.

With daily sales of well over 20 million plants and flowers, FloraHolland’s auction houses together comprise the largest flower auction in the world. In addition to the Netherlands (which is itself a major producer of cut flowers), more than 10 countries, including Europe, Ecuador, Colombia, Israel, Ethiopia and Kenya all use the Dutch auction as a gateway to distributing their plants and flowers to other parts of the world.

HOW THEY DO IT

When your business is moving millions of cut flowers daily, keeping the product fresh is the primary concern. To meet the challenge, the Dutch have created lightening-fast logistics. The whole process begins with a collaborative effort undertaken by Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, ground shipping companies and the Dutch government.

Workers moving flowers on trolleys at Aalsmeer Auction

Workers loading trolleys at Aalsmeer Auction House

Nicknamed Hub Ways, the approach works to improve traffic flow both to and from the airport and between the six FloraHolland auction sites. It’s a serious business. When deemed necessary, Hub Ways has even gone so far as to widen country roads just to make the flowers’ delivery more efficient.

The largest and most famous of the six Dutch flower auctions is the Aalsmeer Flower Auction. Often referred to as ‘the New York Stock Exchange for Flowers’ it occupies a massive building measuring an astonishing 10.6 million square feet (243 acres, or roughly two football fields). It is the largest flower trade center in the world.

Photo credit: www.hollandfoto.net / Shutterstock, Inc.

On a busy day, the Aalsmeer Flower Auction Hall sells millions of cut flowers to around 2,800 wholesalers and exporters. The buyers arrive at 6 am (midnight EDT) in the morning to bid.

RACING AGAINST THE CLOCK

While the supply chain makes sure the flowers arrive quickly, the Dutch Auction Method speeds the transactions at the points of sale. To accommodate their products’ perishability, Dutch flower auctions run on a system that is the flip side of traditional auctions (in which bidders push prices up from below.)  Also known as clock auctions, the unusual format is designed to ensure the highest transaction speed.

FloraHolland auction room, FloraHolland.com

FloraHolland auction room, FloraHolland.com

These days there is no longer an actual clock, but instead a digital circle operated individually by an auctioneer.  Buyers connect to the clock of their choice by means of a headset. All bidding is done electronically.

Dutch auction clock/ Click here to see how it works

The auction begins with the auctioneer setting a high price on the ‘clock.’ The price is then rapidly lowered by increments as indicated by a moving red dot on the circle. The first buyer to press the button and stop the clock is the highest bidder. The whole process can take under five seconds.

Flowers ready for auction

Adrienne Lansbergen, spokeswoman for Bloemenveiling Aalsmeeran, describes the process this way:

“It is really stressful. If you wait too long, as the flowers are passing by, they may be bought by your competitor. If you push the button too quickly, you may pay too high a price.”

Clearly speed is the king of the auction.

Once the transactions are made, the flowers are electronically labeled and placed in buckets, then hurried away on electric carts to the distribution center. Here, employees in mini electric trucks pull the buckets of flowers from the rail and redistribute them to new trolleys. Then the flowers proceed onwards to their new owners’ processing areas.

Flowers heading to the distribution hall at Aalsmeer

Depending on the species and where they are going, the flowers are assigned different packaging to keep them fresh as they travel.  This may include insulated cardboard boxes (designed for durability), ice packs to provide cooling, and/or flower mats, which absorb humidity and prevent mildew growth. Finally, the flowers are sped by truck back to Schiphol airport, where they are quickly loaded back onto planes for delivery overnight.

FloraHolland estimates that around Valentines Day, they trade over 300 million flowers. Of these, roses, tulips and chrysanthemums are the three top selling blooms. Nowadays, most of the roses come from Kenya. Such a long race to get here — something  to think about when arranging your Valentine’s Day blooms in the vase this year.

 

Ten Really Great (Almost) Black Flowers To Plant In Your Garden

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Black bat flower, Tacca chantrieri

In painting, black is the deepest hue, achieved by bringing any color to its darkest value. Black gives structure to a composition, creating the illusion of depth by drawing the eye. And in the garden, black (or almost black) flowers stand out, placing other colors in dramatic contrast. I often incorporate a few of these elegant plants into my plans just to pump up the volume.  Continue reading

In the Gardens of Chenonceau, A Floral Legacy Lives On

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Floral arrangement in grand foyer at Chenonceau

In my view, a visit to Chenonceau in France’s Loire Valley is never complete without a tour of its gardens, and as an extension, the many beautiful floral arrangements that brighten the rooms of this magnificent castle. The two go hand-in-hand, since the one produces tens of thousands of flowers for the other. It’s all part of a time-worn tradition that began centuries ago with the rivalry between two ladies. Continue reading

7 Edible Flowers You Can Grow In Your Garden

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You really can have your flowers and eat them, too. Used for centuries as garnishes, edible flowers are a great way to add taste and color to all kinds of meals. Not so long ago in the United States, though, a handful of blooms tossed into a dish was a relatively unheard-of experience. I first sampled a flower in California in the 80’s when I ordered a garden salad of lettuce and violets. I can still recall the way the petals felt in my mouth and their delicate floral flavor.  Continue reading

The Upside Down Flower World of Artist Rebecca Louise Law

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St. Christopher’s installation by Rebecca Louise Law/Photo: stchristophersplace.com

Last week in London, British artist Rebecca Louise Law literally turned the flower industry on its head. She suspended 1,200 fresh flowers upside down over the West End’s St. Christopher’s Place. The pop-up display, which was designed to celebrate the arrival of warmer weather, immersed winter-weary shoppers in a colorful oasis as they drifted head first through the suspended garden. Continue reading

Ancient Flower Trapped In Amber Unveils New Species

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Photo: George O. Poinar, Jr.

They say time really does stand still; at least when it comes to fossils. And last week, scientists announced that two tropical flowers, possibly as old as 45 million years, have been found in two separate pieces of amber. The ancient flowers, which were discovered in a cave in the Dominican Republic, offer fascinating clues about the evolution of life on the planet. Considering our own brief time here on earth, the discovery certainly puts things into perspective. Continue reading