A Passion for Heirloom Bulbs

In the 1630s, “broken” tulips marked by stunning patterns of contrasting colors (caused by benign viruses) sold for enormous sums in Holland in a bizarre economic bubble that came to be known as Tulipomania.

If you seek a rare survivor from this era of the tulip’s storied history, Scott Kunst of Ann Arbor, Michigan is your source. He founded Old House Gardens in 1993, mailing his first catalog – three pages he photocopied at Kinko’s – to 500 people. His hobby of collecting and preserving antique flower bulbs is now a global business. According to their website, Old House Gardens works with 22 small farmers in 15 states from Oregon to Mississippi to Pennsylvania to Maine (and of course Michigan) as well as with growers overseas in the Netherlands and United Kingdom.

Floriculture is Big Business

Global floriculture production value is a $55 billion a year business. Cut flowers, cut foliage, and flower bulbs are traded globally, mainly from warm climates near the equator to northern countries.

The Netherlands has been the undisputed global trade hub for cut flowers since the early 20th century. More than half of the world’s cut flowers still pass through its auction houses where they are bought from producers and re-sold to wholesalers before reaching your local floral shop or grocery.

Global Market Share in Flower Trade

Technologies are Enabling Newer Producers to Blossom

While the Netherlands remains at the center of global flower trade, Colombia, Kenya, Ecuador and Ethiopia are garnering increasing market share. Together they accounted for 44 percent of global exports in 2015, just surpassing The Netherlands at 43 percent.

Growers in these countries are becoming direct suppliers to their end markets. Increasingly, buyers are willing to assess product and place orders digitally, foregoing the opportunity to see, touch, and smell their prospects at the Dutch auctions.

And while perishable cut flowers predominantly moved by air, which is faster but costs more, new cold chain technologies and the increasing presence of cold storage facilities at developing country ports are enabling newer producers to take advantage of the lower cost of shipping by sea.

Trade Flows in Flowers

Even as developing countries carve up portions The Netherlands’ market share, they are in competition with one another. Colombia and Ecuador fight for U.S. sales. Kenyan growers are positioning to fend off competition from Ethiopia by working to move up the value chain, adding sleeving, labeling, and grading functions to their business models. New flower distribution centers have cropped up in Tel Aviv, Israel and Kunming, China to serve Asian markets.

Now that spring has sprung, you’ll look at bulbs at the gardening center and wonder where in the world they came from, and with Mother’s Day around the corner, you can thank growers in Colombia for your last minute gift.