Floriculture in the United States

by Peter Henderson

1888

 

AT the beginning of the present century, it is not probable that there were 100 florists in the United States, and their combined green-house structures could not have exceeded 50,000 square feet of glass. There are now more than 10,000 florists distributed through every State and Territory in the Union and estimating 5,000 square feet of glass to each, the total area would be 50,000,000 feet, or about 1,000 acres of green-houses. The value of the bare structures, with heating apparatus, at 60 cents per square foot would be $30,000,000, while the stock of plants grown in them would not be less than  twice that sum. The present rate of growth in the business is about 25% per annum, which proves that it is keeping well abreast of our most flourishing industries.

The business, too, is conducted by a better class of men. No longer than thirty years ago it was rare to find any other than a foreigner engaged in commercial floriculture. These men had usually been private gardeners, who were mostly uneducated, and without business habits. But to-day, the men of this calling compare favorably in intelligence and business capacity with any mercantile class.

Floriculture has attained such importance that it has taken its place as a regular branch of study in some of our agricultural colleges. Of late years, too, scores of young men in all parts of the country have been apprenticing themselves to the large establishments near the cities, and already some of these have achieved a high standing; for the training so received by a lad from sixteen to twenty, better fits him for the business here than ten years of European experience, because much of what is learned there would prove worse than useless here. The English or German florist has here to contend with unfamiliar conditions of climate and a manner of doing business that is novel to him. Again he has been trained to more deliberate methods of working, and when I told the story a few years ago of a workman who had potted 10,000 cuttings in two inch pots in ten consecutive hours, it was stigmatized in nearly every horticultural magazine in Europe as a piece of American bragging. As a matter of fact this same workman two years later, potted 11,500 plants in ten hours, and since then several other workmen have potted plants at the rate of a thousand per hour all day long.

Old world conservatism is slow to adopt improvements. The practice of heating by low pressure steam will save in labor, coal and construction one-fifth of the expense by old methods, and nearly all the large green-house establishments in this country, whether private or commercial, have been for some years furnished with the best apparatus. But when visiting London, Edinburgh and Paris in 1885, I neither saw nor heard of a single case where steam had been used for green-house heating. The stress of competition here has developed enterprise, encouraged invention and driven us to rapid and prudent practice, so that while labor costs at least twice as much as it does in Europe, our prices both at wholesale and retail, are lower. And yet I am not aware that American florists complain that their profits compare unfavorably with those of their brethren over the sea.

Commercial floriculture includes two distinct branches, one for the production of flowers and the other for the production of plants. During the past twenty years the growth in the flower department of the business has outstripped the growth of the plant department. The increase in the sale of Rosebuds in winter is especially noteworthy. At the present time it is safe to say that one-third of the entire glass structures in the United States are used for this purpose; many large growers having from two to three acres in houses devoted to Roses alone, such erections costing from $50,000 to $100,000 each, according to the style in which they are built.

More cut flowers are used for decoration in the United States than in any other country, and it is probable that there are more flowers sold in New York than in London with a population four times as great. In London and Paris, however, nearly every door-yard and window of city and suburb show the householder’s love for plants, while with us, particularly in the vicinity of New York (Philadelphia and Boston are better), the use of living plants for home decoration is far less general.

There are fashions in flowers, and they continually change. Thirty years ago thousands of Camellia flowers were retailed in the holiday season for $1 each, while Rosebuds would not bring a dime. Now, many of the fancy Roses sell at $1 each, while Camellia flowers go begging at ten cents. The Chrysanthemum is now rivaling the Rose, as well it may, and no doubt every decade will see the rise and fall of some floral favorite. But beneath these flitting fancies is the substantial and unchanging love of flowers that seems to be an original instinct in man, and one that grows in strength with growing refinement. Fashion may now and again condemn one flower or another, but the fashion of neglecting flowers altogether will never prevail, and we may safely look forward in the expectation of an ever increasing interest and demand, steady improvement in methods of cultivation, and to new and attractive developments in form, color and fragrance.