The Los Angeles Flower Market faces international flower imports and a decrease in Japanese Americans but remains positive in market success.
By Tiffany Ujiiye, Assistant EditorDuring the 1960s in Downtown Los Angeles, crowds of florists, restaurant and hotel businessmen and women along with the discreet faces of the general public huddled on Wall Street at the entrance of the Southern California Flower Market, an establishment founded by Japanese immigrants in 1912. They waited for the ropes to drop, and by 6 a.m., the buildings were empty jungles, with moving carts of peonies, ferns and chrysanthemums rolling out the doors. Every year during Valentine’s Day, wholesalers and growers inside would anticipate the hustle and flurry that came during this time. Today, Valentine’s Day will come with a hush compared to the past rose-themed days of yesteryear.
“It’s unfortunate,” described Scott Yamabe, current Flower Market executive vice president. “We used to have the largest population of Japanese American rose growers, and as time goes on, we lose them.”
The Los Angeles Flower Market, now 103 years old, was and still is the center of flower sales in Southern California.
“This is the hub,” Yamabe explains. “It’s the only game in town for flowers. We’re not going anywhere.”
Flower growers then and now travel with their crop before dawn to Downtown Los Angeles each day, sometimes leaving their homes from cities like Santa Barbara as early as midnight to reach Wall Street by 2 a.m.
“Valentine’s Day is busy no doubt,” current Flower Market President Greg Endow explains about the floral holiday. Four generations of the Endow family hail from Carpinteria, Calif., with decades of floral holidays behind them, but, added Endow, “We actually don’t sell roses anymore. I don’t think that there are any Japanese American nurseries growing roses — at least in Southern California. There aren’t that many of us to begin with.” Endow estimates that there are no more than seven Japanese American families at the Flower Market doing business today.
Over the past several years, roses and other floral shipments from Mexico, South America and Thailand, as well as other parts of the world, have made their way onto store shelves in big-name retailers such as Costco, Sam’s Club and Walmart, in addition to supermarket chains and floral shops thanks to free trade, making a dozen roses affordable at around $20 or less.
According to the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, places like Colombia grew 20,000 acres of flowers and exported $1.34 billion worth of flowers in 2014, with roses coming in as the top seller at $365 million. In a January article by the Oregonian, during times like Valentine’s Day, close to 30-35 fully loaded cargo planes take off from Colombia and land in Miami with flowers each day.
Once in Miami, the shipment is distributed throughout the United States.
“They’re an expensive crop,” Endow says. “Unfortunately, it makes sense for wholesaler to purchase from off-shore growers, but we still have our usual sales during this time of year, too.”
In 1964, the U.S. had roughly 22,000 retail florists and handled $1 billion in sales with the Los Angeles Floral Market, the center for West Coast growers. It was in those days Japanese American growers remember the crowds huddled behind the ropes outside the Flower Market, making floral holidays like Valentine’s Day especially busy in both volumes of crops prepared and man hours needed.
The Flower Market’s success made it one of the most- capitalized Japanese American industries after World War II, attracting Nisei leaders in the JACL. In 1951, a $1,000 loan was made to the JACL from the Flower Market, allowing the organization to move its headquarters from Salt Lake City, Utah, to San Francisco, where it still is today. While the loan from the Flower Market covered only one-sixth of the total relocation costs, more dollars were donated to support various JACL causes throughout the years, according to author Naomi
Hirahara’s “A Scent of Flowers: The History of the Southern California Flower Market 1912-2004.”
To say those were the glory days wouldn’t be entirely true either.
“The floral industry is still alive — don’t get me wrong,” said Robert Kitayama of Kitayama Brothers, located in Watsonville, Calif. “It’s not as if people aren’t buying flowers anymore. We continue to ship to Chicago and even New York.”
Kitayama Brothers has already sold out of Gerberas, Lisianthuses, Starfighters, Pink Orientals and Snapdragons, with a dwindling stock of tulips this year thanks to Valentine’s Day. The nursery experiences anywhere from 1.5-2 times its usual business during this floral holiday, but not a single rose. In the late 1970s, Kitayama Brothers was the largest grower in the U.S., sitting on 5 million square feet of land, producing roses of all things.
“Hindsight is 20/20,” Kitayama admitted on the company’s blog in the weeks before Valentine’s Day. “We probably should’ve grown a bit more.”
However, Kitayama, like Endow and Yamabe, recognizes the dwindling number of Japanese American growers. “With almost 90 percent of flowers coming in from overseas, South America and Mexico, it makes business competitive,” Kitayama said. “But what’s more unfortunate is that there aren’t many of us left. I love what I do — growing flowers in the most beautiful place, but for how much longer? It’s hard to say.”
The dates and times listed are for Valentine’s Day 2015. Flower Market doors open to the general public at 6 a.m. on Monday, Feb. 9; Wednesday, Feb. 11; Friday, Feb. 13; Saturday, Feb. 14; and 8 a.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 10, and Thursday, Feb. 12. Admission is $2. The Flower Market is located at 754 Wall St. in Los Angeles. Visit www. originallaflowermarket.com or call (213) 627-3696 for more information.