Industry History Print E-mail

An industry is born out of the backyard

California is viewed by many as a land of discovery, the site of the Gold Rush in 1849, and more recently, the birthplace of the nation’s microcomputer industry. As it turns out, a Californian can also be credited as the originator of America’s commercial cut flower industry.

The state’s cut flower business goes back to the late 1870’s when a Ventura housewife, Theodosia Shepherd, was inspired to sell the flowers she raised in her garden, notably the abundant calla lilies that thrived in Southern California’s Mediterranean climate. Other women began to follow suit by bringing their own backyard beauty to the local market, and the retail florist profession was born.

By the turn of the century, most towns had just one florist. Today, retail florists number some 40,000 nationwide, in addition to thousands of supermarket cut flower departments and kiosks on city streets and in shopping malls.

Soon after Ms. Shepherd and her fellow homemakers discovered that raising flowers was a respectable, enjoyable way to earn extra money, flower farming blossomed on a larger scale. Many Japanese families new to California turned their love of beauty and their botanical talents to producing flowers. The state’s cut flower industry further expanded as flower-arranging came into vogue at the turn of the century. This period marked a time when French Impressionists began celebrating flowers in their paintings and women’s magazines began counseling homemakers on the care and display of flowers.

The California Floral Industry Expands

Some of the earliest known commercial flower nurseries were started near Oakland, California in the 1890’s by the Domoto family. The 4 brothers were born in Japan and immigrated to the United States in the 1880’s. After working for several years independently, the brothers pooled their resources and started a nursery, and a tradition. In the 1920’s the brothers began bringing students to the U.S. from their village in Japan and educated them in the United States. This became known as the Domoto College.

While the Domoto’s were educating Japanese immigrants, floriculture was taking off in north San Diego County. In 1883 John Frazier dug the first well in the north county to supply water to his 126 acres near what is now Carlsbad. This was the beginning of the agricultural boom in the area. Several years later, Luther Gage came to the Carlsbad area to grow gladioli, freesias, ranunculi and anemones. Gage was the first Carlsbad area grower to ship winter glads to the LA Flower Market and is also credited with introducing bird-of-paradise as a commercial crop in the North County. Around this same time, young Paul Ecke, Sr. planted his first poinsettia crop in Encinitas. Unfortunately, this first crop was destroyed by a fierce Santa Ana wind. Enough propagating wood was saved from Ecke’s Encinitas crop and from the crop near Hollywood for a crop the following year.

Early growers like Thomas McLoughlin, Donald Briggs, Sr., E.G. Thornton, the Frazee’s are credited with producing some of the best and most diverse flower crops in the area. These were not easy times for flower growers and when World War II started, times became even harder for growers across the state. During the Japanese interment, Paul Ecke, Sr. was among several growers who stored farm equipment and household goods for his friends that were removed from their homes. In Northern California, similar acts were taking place as Italian growers continued the businesses of their Japanese counterparts.

In 1967, complete with 31 family members and a 100,000 square-foot greenhouse Case, Hank, John and Bill Van Wingerden set sail from their native Naaldwijk, Holland for Carpinteria, California. News of the Van Wingerden’s success reached Holland and other Dutch growers were inspired to immigrate as well. The ideal climatic conditions and the strong economy and infrastructure of the California coast made growers like Wim Zwinkels and the Brands feel right at home.