Where have all the flowers gone?
By Stephanie Cain
The photographs of trashed flowers still haunt florists. In 2020, when much of the world went into lockdown because of the pandemic, many flower farms’ crops were discarded. Since no one knew what was going to happen, new crops were not planted as usual.
Now, because of pandemic-related supply chain challenges, labor shortages and poor weather conditions in major growing areas, there is a global shortage of fresh flowers, especially the kinds grown for events like weddings.
“It was never a problem before, but now everything is a problem,” said Bob Conti, a partner at Ed Libby Events, a floral design company in Hackensack, New Jersey. “We’ll find out there are no white flowers, or the specialty rose is just not available. There is no way to get it. People can’t get containers, floral tape, supplies or even colored candles. No one can promise things. It’s been crazy. Just nuts.”
Conti has worked in the floral industry, with a focus on events, for 30 years and said he has never seen such a scarcity of materials. Many florists across the country said they were seeing the same thing.
“Floral growers lost so much with all the wasted or unsold product from the worldwide shutdown in 2020 and were apprehensive on how much to plan for 2021 and beyond,” said Rishi Patel, the CEO and chief creative officer at HMR Designs, an events producer in Chicago. Patel said that in the past, if a product wasn’t available, it was typically because of a natural disaster in an isolated area. His team could usually find what they needed elsewhere, just at a higher cost. But that’s not the case now.
“What we are facing now is an abrupt halt in the entire floral world,” Patel said.
It’s hitting at the same time as a boom in weddings, for which many couples spend thousands of dollars on flowers. This year, there are some 2.5 million weddings expected to take place in the United States, according to the trade group the Wedding Report; as a result, Conti estimated that it could take until 2023 for business to function as it did before the pandemic.
“Wedding season is about to start up again, so it’s still going to be difficult,” he said. “We’re probably a year out from some sort of stabilization.”
Farm to Table
The fresh-flower business involves a complicated supply chain that, despite its intricacy, managed to function almost seamlessly before the pandemic.
Most flowers sold in the U.S. come from the Netherlands, Colombia, Ecuador and Kenya, all considered major growing areas. The vast majority of roses at weddings worldwide, for instance, are from Ecuador, and the Netherlands produces the most peonies. While there are flower farms in the U.S., they tend to specialize in rarer varieties because they cannot compete with volume produced by growers in other areas of the world, or the lower prices they charge.
Flowers used at events are different from those sold at grocery stores or online retailers. So-called event flowers are bred to a higher quality, reaching peak bloom by the day of an event. These flowers are often harvested by hand about 10 days before a wedding, which is roughly the amount of time it takes to fully open.
The flowers at grocery stores are meant to have a longer life and are harvested earlier so that the petals stay tightly closed and won’t open before purchase. But many times, they never fully open, which is why they aren’t of use to most wedding florists.
After fresh flowers are harvested, they go to auctions and markets for wholesale sellers, who package and ship them via trucks and planes, always temperature-controlled, to warehouses and other distribution points around the world. From there, they are sent to businesses like Conti’s and Patel’s or to smaller local markets like the flower districts in Los Angeles and New York.
For weddings, many florists have a hybrid approach to sourcing. The majority of blooms used are event flowers, bought directly from wholesalers to guarantee the volume and varieties needed. Those are then supplemented with specific flowers used for small arrangements, bouquets and other accents that florists buy at local flower markets a few days before an event.
In the decades that this process remained reliable, florists like Conti could discuss floral designs with customers up to a year in advance and showcase sample arrangements six to eight weeks before a celebration. Rarely did florists worry that they could not acquire the dozens of white flowers needed for an altar backdrop, or the Eskimo roses for an arrangement at a sweetheart table.
Then came the pandemic.
Challenges at Every Step
After the shutdowns of 2020, not only did growers plant less, they also changed what they were planting, said Tracey Morris, a florist in Santa Barbara, California. Many farms that her company, Ella & Louie, works with switched from growing event flowers to the kinds sold at grocery stores because those were more profitable at the time, she said. Farms have since resumed planting event flowers, Morris said, but it’s a slower process because they have to wait until what’s growing is harvested, or rip those flowers out, to plant new ones.
Labor shortages have affected the industry, too. After demand dropped in 2020, farms and wholesalers let go of employees, including harvesters and salespeople. Other workers left their jobs as a ripple effect of lifestyle changes brought by the pandemic.
At one of the local farms she works with, Morris said, an employee’s “daughter had to start kindergarten online, and her father was by her side. That meant one less person to plant and harvest for the year.”
The process of getting flowers from one place to another also unraveled. Patrick Dahlson, the CEO of Mayesh Wholesale in Los Angeles, said his floral business, which includes 19 branches in 11 states and distribution facilities in cities including Miami and Portland, Oregon, has experienced delays on a weekly basis. Dahlson said there are fewer truck drivers to transport flowers and, with a decline in international flights, less space on planes for imports. Such holdups, he said, can result in a loss of product because flowers may sit in a cooler at an airport for days before they are loaded on to a flight.
Colder-than-usual temperatures in 2021 along with a rainier growing season in South America crushed crop yields for flowers like roses and carnations, both popular for weddings. And droughts in California have continued to pose a challenge to flower farms in the state, which has the largest number of such businesses in the country.
The challenges have also led to higher prices for both domestic and imported flowers. Conti said roses that used to cost $1.50 per stem are now going for $3 a stem or more. White flowers, the most requested color for weddings, have also risen in cost, according to Patel, from 25% to 50%.
Amid it all, florists are finding creative ways to provide clients with their dream wedding flowers. The keys are flexibility and creativity.
“The easiest events for us have been those in which we have full creative reign,” said Kara Nash, owner of Kara Nash Designs in Atlanta. “Even though it may sound all doom and gloom, there are flowers to be had. They just may be different varieties than you expected.”
Nash has been rethinking how to build an arrangement when her go-to flowers are unavailable. She will pluck out the center of a rose to transform it into a garden rose, or the center of a carnation to make it look like a lisianthus, she said. Nash will also alter a flower’s color using floral paint.
Conti said that instead of large flower arrangements, he has used alternative flora like potted live trees, which, unlike flowers, he can reuse for other events. He has also turned to candles, lining aisles with pillar candles and suspending votive candles from ceilings.
“Couples want their day to look beautiful and reflect their style,” Nash said. “As long as the overall visual impact is striking, it doesn’t matter whether we used roses or peonies to get that look.”