Last weekend, a friend and I took a tour of Potomac Floral Wholesale in Silver Spring, Maryland as part of a Floral Arrangement Basics class offered by Helen Olivia in Alexandria, Virginia. Potomac Floral is one of Washington D.C.'s largest floral wholesalers - receiving shipments from all over the world on a daily basis trucked in from JFK (port for European countries), Miami (port for South American countries), and inside the U.S. (e.g., California, Oregon, Washington, and Florida). Later in the afternoon, the class returned to Helen Olivia Flowers to review the conditioning of flowers, how flowers get from farm to shop, and the seasonality of flowers.

One of the interesting facts I learned up at the wholesaler is that, to accommodate the vast quantities of flowers being shipped, all floral boxes are the same length in order to promote space efficiencies on the planes and trucks.  This and other transportation improvements have basically allowed the floral industry to become less seasonal by facilitating access to countries with more consistent growing temperatures or that are located the opposite hemisphere.  In fact, there are very few flowers that florists can only get seasonally now:

Spring: hellobores, flowering branches, lilac, peonies
Summer: celosia, dahlias, rudbekia, zinnias
Fall: dahlias, bittersweet, rudbekia, rose hips
Winter: ilex berries

Based on the shelf quantities at Potomac Floral, this time of year the hydrangeas from Holland looked to be at their peak, along with sunflowers and the fun "brain flowers" (celosia).  It's all too common that we, as consumers, balk at the high prices of flowers, but even at wholesale cost, one of the giant Dutch hydrangea blooms maybe costs a minimum of $5 a stem and even more for the deeper/richer colors that are not easy to obtain.

Speaking of prices, from my viewpoint and with my education background in economics, I find it interesting that the international flower market is still one that is driven by textbook supply and demand patterns.  The Dutch flower industry is centered around their daily auctions where, much like the New York Stock Exchange, brokers/buyers are employed by wholesalers and retailers around the world to bid on their behalf for lots of blooms (called stapelwagens).  Like stock prices, flower prices can vary minute by minute; and when demand is very high, the prices adjust up accordingly (i.e. red roses cost double wholesale around Valentines Day).  For U.S. consumers, the prices for Dutch flowers are higher than European resale flowers because of transportation costs.  At the same time, these transportation costs are ensuring that the flowers are fresher than they have ever been in the floral industry's history.  For example, located at the Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, the Aalsmeer auction (largest of seven Dutch auctions) can sell to a broker a lot of flowers that were picked the day before by the grower, then place those flowers onto a 7:10pm flight that arrives at JFK at 9:10pm.  The flowers are routed onto trucks and taken to Potomac Floral overnight to then be repacked onto local delivery trucks, arriving at the Washington D.C. florist shop by 10am.  That is approximately 48 hours after the flower was cut.  Fresher flowers equals happier customers, many of whom are willing to pay for higher quality products.

While wandering the rows and rows of flowers in the cooler, I saw two really interesting blooms. One was a simple orange and red rose (maybe a "circus" rose) that was genetically modified to have the ruffled edge look of a cabbage rose.  The other was a variety of flower I had never heard of but was a gorgeous, pale blue little bloom with its furry lime green leaves, called Nigella Love in a Mist (or, scientifically, Nigella damascena).

Of course, as a floral wholesaler, Potomac Floral also had a supply section for all your arranging needs.

Speaking of arranging, back at the Helen Olivia store, we spent an hour going over conditioning, storage, and selection of flowers for bouquets.  Then we took our buckets of flowers and created a beautiful arrangement to take home with us.

Contained in the 5" cylindrical arrangement above:

  • Variegated pittosporum (Florida), used as the base for the arrangement
  • Columbian "Circus" roses 
  • Ecuadorian mini green hydrangeas 
  • Aspidistra leaf (Florida), cut and folded into bow loops
  • Local sunflower
  • Yellow spotted orchid (didn't catch the variety)
  • Dutch lisianthus (one of my favorite flowers, next to snapdragons)
  • Dutch freesia (orange)