Where Flowers Come From

Where do flowers come from? The ones that you buy at a florist or sidewalk flower seller, that is. Some may be grown locally, but most come from some distance. In this era of jet air travel it is not unusual for flowers for sale on the streets of New York City to have been grown in Brazil.

Ellwanger & Barry catalog

From the 1840s through the 1920s Rochester, New York was the source of an enormous quantity of flowers and plants. The city had been established in the earliest 19th century as a milling center for the Genesee Valley wheat farmers and had been dubbed “the Flour City.” The completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 made the transportation of flour eastward to the New York market marvelously efficient and Rochester became the United States first frontier “boom town.”

When a blight in the wheat fields and exhaustion of the soils caused the center of wheat production to move westward to Ohio, Rochester switched economic gears. Blake McElvey, the city historian of Rochester for many decades, wrote “The Flour City: Center of Nurseries and Orchards” as a volume of the Rochester Historical Society Publications (vol. XVIII; 1940).

George Ellwanger

George Ellwanger, an emigrant from Wurtemberg, Germany, passed through Rochester in 1835 as he journeyed by canal boat to Ohio, where he was going to spend the summer with relatives in order to learn English. While in Rochester he noted, according to McElvey, the “luxuriant vegetation and its favorable location for a horticultural establishment” and realized that not only did the canal serve as an east-west commercial artery, but the port of Rochester was only a short voyage away from several major Canadian cities.

Patrick Barry

In 1840 Ellwanger established a nursery in partnership with Irish immigrant Patrick Barry, which grew to cover several hundred acres on the southern border of the growing city. Their specialty was raising fruit and ornamental trees, but they had 30,000 square feet of “plant houses” as well.

Four-squares in Ellwanger-Barry neighborhood

Their nursery continued to expand until the 1870s. After the end of the Civil War Rochester experienced explosive growth and the horticulturalists became real estate developers. They subdivided their growing grounds into housing developments, at first selling to their employees (who numbered in the hundreds).

Throughout the decades of their ascendance, Ellwanger and Barry and other Rochester nurseries had been shipping plants and seed westward into the new frontier. In addition to the shrinking of the business due to their selling of land for real estate development, they also lost their hegemony to the very nurseries that had been established using the plants and seed they had sent westward.

Nurseries need space and before the era of truck and jet transport, tended to be on the far edges of metropolitan area (some nurseries still survive on Long Island and in New Jersey), but they were often crowded out by expanding residential development.

Flower exporting region

One area where that is not likely to happen is the Negev Desert in Israel. Thirty years ago Israelis began growing roses in the Negev. The region around Sde Nitzan began as a tomato-growing region in the 1960s, using greenhouses imported from the Netherlands. The switch to rose-growing came in the late 1970s. Initially the roses were exported to the Netherlands and sold through the flower auctions there.

Four years ago “Miriam and Myron” (M&M) began to ship roses directly from Israel to homes in the United States. They are delivered via Federal Express to any address in the country. There is a strong nationalist message in their marketing:
“Our roses are grown in Israel, irrigated with water from the Sea of Galilee and kissed by the sun which shines on Jerusalem, the capital of Israel. These roses are not just flowers, they are a message of solidarity and identification with Israel.

“In Israel, every Shabbat and every holiday are celebrated with flowers, and particularly, with roses.

“The holiday tables are always set with roses. You too, can celebrate Shabbat like we, in Israel, do. You too can have ‘Roses from Israel’ on your Shabbat and holiday table.

“Why put roses from South America on your shabat table when you can have ‘Roses from Israel,’ instead?”

In the 19th century Ellwanger and Barry supplied the American West with plants, but presumably only the greater Rochester area with cut flowers. There was no way to keep the flowers fresh over long distances. In the 21st century you can have cut flower delivered from the Negev Desert to your door.