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What's the first thing a person does when you hand them flowers?" Bob Otsuka, general manager of the San Francisco Flower Mart, asked me. To answer his own question, he pantomimed the gesture people make, bringing his hands to his face and breathing deeply. "
They smell them," he said.
I sniffed the air, trying to catch the fragrance of rose or lily. Nothing. Sixty vendors sell cut flowers and plants out of this warehouse off Market Street, and as Bob and I walked the concrete floor a little after 5 a.m. neither one of us could find a blossom with a scent. "
These flowers have all been bred for the industry," Bob said. "They're selecting for color and size, and most of all for durability. You make some trade-offs when you do that. One of the things these flowers lose is scent."
"But you know what?" he said as we continued down the hall past carts loaded with buckets of hydrangeas and sunflowers. "People still want to believe that flowers smell good. I've seen somebody put their face right into a bunch of 'Leonidas' and say, 'Oh, they smell wonderful.' But I know that rose. It's got gold petals with coppery edges -- you know the one I mean? It was bred for fall weddings. And it doesn't have any fragrance at all."
He shook his head, laughing, and I followed him down to the end of the hall, where he thought we might find some lilies that still had scent.
The first thing you notice about a flower market is how out of place it seems in a big city. Even in San Francisco, a sunny, breezy, metropolis where people are not shy about wearing flowers in their hair or anyplace else, the idea of a flower market is not in keeping with the grime and grit of urban life. Unlike the fishing industry, which has found a way to operate within the theme park environment of Fisherman's Wharf, the flower trade is tucked away from the public eye in a warehouse district along the freeway. The market itself is nothing but a big boxy warehouse surrounded by trucks jockeying for position at the loading bays.
Arriving before dawn, with no prospect of coffee in the near future, makes the place seem even more rough and grim. Once you manage to swerve around the trucks and nose into the parking garage, you might find yourself sitting in the car, as I did, savoring a couple more seconds of warmth from the heater, wondering what it was that possessed you to get up at such an unholy hour and drive in the dark to this industrial neighborhood.
But then you make it across the parking garage, you walk down the stairs, and you push open a heavy metal door and stand blinking in the sudden light. Inside is Disneyland. Oz. Santa's toy shop. This, your sleep-and-caffeine-deprived mind tells you, is where flowers come from.
Hundreds of snapdragons wheel past on a metal handcart. Thousands of carnations sit in buckets. Roses are bunched just the way they left the farm, with each bud wrapped in a little piece of tissue. There are gardenia corsages. Artificially dyed chrysanthemums. Orchids from Thailand. Tulips from Holland. Lilies from Colombia. Ginger blossoms from Hawaii. Silk magnolias. Dried larkspur. Wreaths, houseplants, vases, baskets, ribbons, greens. It's all here. It's overpowering and bright and gorgeous. The trade floor is bustling with buyers and sellers who seem oblivious to the fact that it's five o'clock in the morning and they've already been at work for two hours.
Another handcart is wheeled by, this one carrying more lilies of the valley than you've ever seen in one place. A short, dark-haired guy in a suit is running alongside the cart negotiating a price. Imagine Wall Street in the Garden of Eden.
I had talked Bob into showing me around before dawn, when I knew the market was open only to the trade, because for years I'd been curious about how the place operated. I also wanted to see the good flowers, the ones that got snapped up before they let the public in at ten o'clock. Many of the vendors didn't even bother sticking around until ten—they packed up and headed out of the city before the average San Franciscan was out of bed.
There were prurient interests at stake here, too: I've always had a generalized, smutty sort of lust for flowers, and this was one more opportunity to get near them. It almost didn't matter what was for sale that day—I knew I would want whatever they had. Wild poppies, hothouse roses, dime-store carnations—whatever it is, I'll take it. I was enormously frustrated at having to keep my cash in my pocket as I strolled around without the badge that I needed to make a wholesale purchase. I would have happily spent the grocery money on flowers that day, if only they had let me.
Bob was a friendly guide, trading jokes with the growers and dismissing the most outrageous rumors about the trade with a wave of his hand. Hydrangeas stolen from shrubs in Golden Gate Park and sold to wholesalers through some kind of floral black market? Yeah, maybe. But then the volunteers at the park got smart and started making a little mark with a Sharpie at the base of every blossom, and that put a stop to it. Fistfights on the market floor when one vendor drops the price of roses and forces everyone else to follow suit? Well, not exactly fistfights. But close.
I followed Bob around, thinking, they do all this for flowers. Airplanes fly in from Bogota and trucks drive from Miami and acres of greenhouses get built and billions of dollars change hands. All that for the alstroemerias you pick up at the grocery store as an afterthought. All that for the delphiniums you send to the hospital to cheer up your sister. All that for the violets on a grave, the carnation in your buttonhole.
There's an inherent contradiction in offering flowers up for sale, something I couldn't quite put my finger on, and I hoped that getting close to the action would help explain it. Finally, I realized what it was: Flowers are like nothing else that we buy. They don't play by the same rules. For one thing, they are basically free. You can pick a flower by the side of the road. You can grow one in your garden for next to nothing. A flower is as perishable as a piece of fruit, but less practical—you can't eat it, after all. Put a rose in a vase and it'll be dead within a week. That's all you get for your money. In spite of this, the cut flower market is a forty-billion dollar business worldwide. Breeders pour big money into building a better flower: one that lasts longer in the vase, one that doesn't drop petals or shed pollen, one that meets the peculiar demands of autumn brides or supermarket shoppers.
The floral trade—the business end of our relationship with cut flowers—has ancient origins. Consider this letter:
Roses are not yet in full bloom here—in fact they are scarce—and from all the nurseries and all the garland-weavers we could just barely get together the thousand that we sent you...even with picking the ones that ought not to have been picked till tomorrow. We had all the narcissi you wanted, so instead of the two thousand you asked for we sent four thousand.
This ordinary bit of business correspondence could have been written last week, but in fact it was scribbled on papyrus in Roman Egypt and dates to shortly before the birth of Christ. Imagine: flowers were already grown in fields, ordered in bulk, and shipped by the thousands in hopes that they would arrive in time for a party or a holiday. The most modern rose grower can sympathize with the problem of having to pick roses before they are quite ready. This anonymous, ancient tradesman probably worried, just as rose growers do today, that blossoms picked at this stage would never open in the vase and would leave his customers unsatisfied.
The Romans developed a sophisticated flower trade, complete with all the taxation, accounting, and logistical issues that accompany any commercial enterprise. They knew how to force flowers to bloom early by pumping steam or hot water past them. They attempted greenhouses with thin walls of mica and used wheeled carts to move plants in and out of the sun. And as soon as these artificial means of cultivating flowers developed, along came their critics, who saw the floral trade as a bit unnatural, given the way it used technology to stay out of step with the seasons. It makes me uncomfortable to see sunflowers for sale at Christmas, so far from their summer season, and I am not alone. The Roman playwright and philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca wrote this in the first century AD: "Do not men live contrary to Nature who crave roses in winter or seek to raise a spring flower like a lily by means of hot-water heaters and artificial changes of temperature?"
The cut flower trade is all about this struggle between what is natural and unspoiled and what is mass produced and commercial. We like being able to buy a summer flower in February—in fact, we've built a holiday around it—but we also distrust fakery. The Victorian writer Charles Manby Smith voiced a complaint in 1853 that florists still hear today. The flowers he bought from a traveling florist in London drooped within a day or two of purchase, owing perhaps to "an overdose of stimulating fluid." That's the trouble with this business: the product is unpredictable, and the customers are fickle. Although the demand for flowers in London was on the increase, Smith warned that "the commerce in blossoming flowers is one of the most uncertain and dangerous speculations in which the small street-traders of London can engage."
So are we being tricked when a scientist engineers a lily that doesn't shed pollen or when a grower forces tulips to bloom in December? Does it matter that a dewy-fresh bouquet of roses traveled halfway around the world and lived without water for several days before it arrived at the supermarket? If the mixed bouquet of red roses and pink chrysanthemums designed by a national wire service at Valentine's Day is indistinguishable from thousands of others delivered that same day all across the country, does that make the message it carries any less significant?
Yes and no. There's no doubt that flowers underwent a complete makeover in the twentieth century. New breeding techniques, advanced greenhouse technology, and global transportation systems saw to that. Thanks to those advances, there are some fantastic flowers on the market, all year long, for a remarkably cheap price. But modern flowers have lost something, too. They're tamer, better behaved, less fickle, and less seasonal. Many have lost their scent, and I wondered if they were also losing their identity, their power, or their passion. We want a flower to be perfect, but we also want it to be unique, extraordinary. We want it to be a revelation, a one-of-a-kind experience. Such a thing gets harder to find every year.