The week leading up to Mother’s Day is crunch time on the city’s “Florist Row.”
At wholesaler Baisch & Skinner, florists streamed through the door to wander through the complex of greenhouses and vast walk-in coolers, selecting from a staggering selection of flowers and plants flown in from all over the planet.
At Walter Knoll, down the street, 100 delivery vans lined up and waited, while inside at long tables, designers worked overtime, wrangling thousands of flowers into bouquets that will carry endearments to thousands of moms.
“At 10 o’clock last night, there were 45 of us here,” said master designer Scott Hepper on Friday, as he worked some stems into yet another bouquet. “Mother’s Day in a flower shop is like April 14th at H&R Block.”
May, in general, is a huge month in the flower business, so Florist Row hums at a higher pitch for weeks.
“Everyone thinks it’s about Mother’s Day — and it is,” said Bob Baisch of Baisch & Skinner, a wholesaler headquartered here, and with seven other locations in Missouri, Illinois, Kansas and Arizona. “But you also have graduations, weddings, parties. You have it all in the month of May.”
Florist Row occupies a few blocks on LaSalle Street, a one-way stretch hemmed in by apartment complexes and industrial buildings in a flat and seemingly unremarkable part of the city. For anyone in the business of flowers, though, it is the nerve center of the region’s floral industry — the place where local florists play their part in a segment of the agricultural economy that last year tallied $34 billion in sales.
Originally, the city’s floral hub was on Pine Street, where the trolley system shuttled blooms throughout the area. But in the 1920s, when that area was redeveloped, Florist Row sprang up on LaSalle, where dozens of wholesalers took up shop in long brick buildings built to house them. For decades it was a vibrant place.
“It used to look like Disney World down here,” remembered Walter Knoll, whose family has been in the flower business since the 1880s. “Every building had a wholesaler in it.”
But things changed, along with the industry at large, as improved transportation and more efficient logistics led toward consolidation, with bigger operations and fewer businesses competing in a globalized marketplace.
“When I started there were 11 or 12 wholesalers,” said Baisch, whose father launched Baisch & Skinner in the 1950s. “Now there are four.”
The reasons for that are varied, but one major factor was the floral industry’s realization that flowers need to be kept cold in order to last.
“The colder the better, because the closer we get to freezing, the flower kind of hibernates and the longer the vase life,” explained Michael Schrader, the floral director for Schnuck Markets Inc., who used to work on Florist Row. “Maintaining the cold chain is critical.”
Maintaining that chain became easier about 30 years ago with improvements in refrigerated trucks. Those “reefer” trucks meant that growing regions that once seemed too far-flung or expensive became more cost-efficient.
“When I was a kid, flowers were flown in to the airport and then you had flowers cooking on the tarmac. We’d lose 10 to 20 percent of our flowers,” Baisch explained. “Then they realized temperature was critical.”
Now, 60 percent of the flowers sold in this country are flown in from overseas, then trucked to wholesale hubs throughout the country. Colombia represents 80 percent of the imports, followed by Ecuador at 15 percent. A wholesaler on Florist Row can order flowers from a grower in Bogota, who wraps the flowers in elaborate packaging and flies it to Miami, where it gets shipped to the Midwest — within a couple days.
Over the years, as flower farmers have migrated toward equatorial countries where higher temperatures and longer days of sunlight mean more growing power, North American growers have gone out of business.
“In many cases it’s cheaper for us to buy a product and fly it from South America and stick it on a truck in Miami than it is to ship it from California to St. Louis,” Schrader said.
Many people in the St. Louis flower business remember a time, even as recently as 40 years ago, when there were productive flower-growing areas only miles from downtown.
“Out on Manchester and 270, that used to be a big growing area, and we used to get a lot of roses from Pana, Ill.,” Schrader recalled. “But then fuel costs went up and local companies didn’t upgrade their greenhouses.”
Now, consumers have come to expect flowers even when they’re far out of season — peonies and roses in the dead of winter — and the flower industry obliges.
“When things are in season, people want things that are out of season,” Baisch said. “But then the products are not as good, and they’re more expensive.”
Still customers seem willing to pay.
At Baisch & Skinner, flower purchaser Ashley MacDonald has 250 growers from all over the world — Israel, Colombia, Holland, New Zealand — at the ready, all the time. She sits at her computer, instant messaging and Skype-ing with dozens at a time, trying to source just the right bloom for a customer, in just the right shade.
“Next week, we need sweet peas in a light peach,” MacDonald said, taking a brief break from her computer. “So they have to be dyed peach, and, because they’re so delicate, they have to be FedEx-ed.”
The wholesalers here — Baisch & Skinner and Knoll among them — bought out smaller sellers whose businesses had weakened when they couldn’t find efficient ways to tap into the newly efficient, global flower business and satisfy consumers’ new expectations.
But threats still seem to loom, even among the survivors.
While sales in floraculture have gone up slightly over the past decade, the number of florists has plummeted, according to the Society of American Florists. In 2003, there were 22,022 florists; last year there were 15,307 — largely thanks to e-commerce.
“Businesses that once had four to seven or more locations are consolidating down to one to three physical locations while still serving the same clientele,” explained Jennifer Sparks, a vice president for marketing at the society.
More of those florists are now buying direct from growers, cutting out the wholesaler altogether, while bigger chains, like Schnucks — with its 95 full-service flower centers — have direct contracts with growers who can grow a particular flower on demand.
“The same market forces that killed the little ones are still there,” Knoll said. “The bear has just gotten stronger because it’s eaten.”
But on Florist Row, things are looking fairly bright. Since Knoll moved his family’s flagship store and distribution center to LaSalle Street in 2002, several new business — special event operations, mostly — have launched.
And, in a case of things coming somewhat close to full circle, wholesalers are sourcing more flowers from local farms, prompting more farmers in the area to grow flowers again. As with food, more consumers are seeking out locally grown flowers, citing concerns about the environmental and social impacts of wide-scale growing in equatorial countries.
At Flowers to the People, on Cherokee Street, owner Bridget Weible specializes in sourcing from local farms.
“A lot of my customers are really accepting of the fact that I don’t have the year-round selection that an FTD florist would,” Weible said, referring to the nationwide floral delivery system. “They know we don’t have tulips in January.”
The University of Wisconsin’s Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems launched a school for budding flower growers in 2006, the only one of its kind in the country, the center believes. Demand for classes at the “Cut Flower Growers School” has been high as more growers seem to want to bring flower farming back to American soil.
Still, says John Hendrickson, the center’s director, the dream of the year-round Midwestern flower farmer probably isn’t going to be realized.
“To grow flowers when most people buy them you need a very sophisticated and expensive greenhouse system,” Hendrickson said.
“We need to move Valentine’s and Mother’s Day to August and September.”