Spring in New York City’s Flower District

by Debra Prinzing on April 16, 2010

in Growers,Home-Grown,The Book Project,The Sustainable Marketplace

Flowering branches, just in time for the season

Pure confection: Quince is one of my favorite early-spring flowering branches

If you arrive early enough, as I did last Tuesday morning, there’s a chance that the flower-sellers in New York’s Flower District will have time to chat.

Take the No. 1 Subway to the 28th St. stop (there is a Starbucks conveniently situated at the corner of Seventh Avenue and West 28th St. for those in need of caffeine).  Fortified with a cup of tea, I strolled east along 28th to see what spring had on offer in the Flower District.

As in fashion, when floral prints and cheery colors infuse the stores with an upbeat antidote to winter, the local and seasonal flowering branches were just what I needed to see during the first week of April. The blossoms beckoned me to delight in their exquisite, natural beauty.

Imagine walking down the narrow city sidewalks where even at 6:45 a.m. one senses a certain urgency to people’s movements. Then . . . the calming influence of flowers. These wild-looking cut branches are in big demand by floral designers who adorn restaurants, retail shops, hotel lobbies and interior home environments. The branches arrive in the flower-hungry metropolis a few days after being pruned from mature, spring-blooming trees in fields and estates just a few hours from here. They are definitely seasonal, local and hand-harvested rather than factory-produced.

April in New York's Flower District, a sidewalk view

Ephemeral flowers in the big city

Displayed in big plastic buckets that line the sidewalks, branches of magnolia, cherry, plum, dogwood, quince, willow, and other early-spring-blooming trees greet floral designers, event producers and everyday customers yearning for a fresh bouquet to perhaps bring home or take with them to the office.

These gifts from nature are simply impossible to ignore. For one thing, the upright bundles are taller than I am! I knew these bodacious branches must have been locally-harvested for several reasons.

First, flowering branches from ornamental woody plants are at the same time delicate and difficult to ship long distances.  Second, they require a local knowledge of place – something you can’t get from a far-off vendor.

And finally, there is something so old-fashioned and non-commercial about these sweet stems . . . something that makes you wonder who found, cut, bundled and delivered them to the “big city.”

New York City flower-seller, Chris Demeo

As I continued down 28th Street, I stopped at Fischer & Page Ltd., Purveyors of “fine blooms and plants.” I met Chris Demeo, who patiently agreed to answer a few of my questions:

Q. Where do these quince, magnolia and cherry branches come from?

A. They come from Branch Guys. They travel south with the weather; as the weather warms, they come further north to harvest.

Q. But who are these Branch Guys?

A. They are “Backwoods Grunts.” They have secret spots where they cut these branches, including farms, estates and other properties.

Q. How long does the flowering branch season last?

Three pretty bunches, all in a row, an expression of springtime

A. There is a small window for these flowers, just as there is a window for local peonies in late spring (we sell tons of them). In fall, we move volumes of local dahlias later in the summer and early fall.

Q. Are your customers – the floral designers – asking for locally-grown floral ingredients?

A. Yes, but you’re always going to have the new bride who wants lily-of-the-valley in December.

Q. So from your perspective, is the wholesale end of the flower business embracing seasonal, local and sustainable flowers?

A. We try to educate (local) farms about what we want. Organic and going green is “in vogue,” but it’s hard, for example with top event designers, to obtain the quantities of (organic flowers) when you need that volume of flowers for a large event.

Discovering dogwood branches

A delicate, pale green dogwood blossom

Next stop:

U.S. Evergreens Inc., which is located down the street and around the corner from Fischer & Page, at 805 Avenue of the Americas (Sixth Ave.).

The sidewalk in front of U.S. Evergreen was equally crammed with seasonal cuttings, including some pretty delicious dogwood branches, pussy willows, evergreen magnolias and fresh-cut boxwood greens.

I poked around, taking photographs and generally getting in the way of the hustle-and-bustle until I struck up a conversation with Eddie, a U.S. Evergreens flower-seller.

He, too, told me that the branches are harvested locally (at a New Jersey farm) and delivered to the New York Flower District.

Magnolias looking pretty dazzling, here on the New York City sidewalk

“We specialize in what’s ever in season,” Eddie explained. “And whatever is very difficult to find elsewhere.”

A bundle of flowering dogwood branches, perhaps 18-inches in diameter when gathered with twine, sells for $65 to $75 wholesale. Eddie told me that the next wave of local woody ingredients will include summertime pear branches. Yum.

This firm’s smart strategy requires having the high-touch approach and old-fashioned work ethic.

It takes a lifetime of knowledge to source the right ingredients that meet market demand. Yet, there was still a fairytale-like quality to what I observed in the Flower District.

I won’t ever again see a flowering branch without remembering my dreamy spring moment on the gritty New York sidewalks – surrounded by blooms!

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

doc April 16, 2010 at 8:00 pm

Nice… I can almost smell them.:)

Lorene April 22, 2010 at 9:23 am

Magical… I love the image of the “grunts” that harvest, bundle and deliver, yet possess a secret knowledge and sensitivity to seasonal nuances and change. Like migrating birds they’re following the weather.

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