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Northwest Living

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Fragrant bunches of lilacs are hoisted around like potatoes at the wholesale market, where flowers are big business.
Who Will Buy?
In the colorful cacophony of a flower market, a world of choices compete

In the pre-dawn gloom of a looming warehouse near Lake Union, the hunt begins anew each morning, six days a week, all year long. By 5 a.m., florists from around the area are jostling through a raucous crowd of vendors to search out the freshest roses and the showiest lilacs from the bounteous displays. The near-frigid air is filled with the persistent beep-beep-beep of big trucks backing up to scoop up or disgorge load after load of blooms. Workers hustle about, sweeping floors, packing and unpacking the endless bunches of blooms, hoisting heavy boxes like they're full of potatoes rather than perfumed petals.

All the seasons and geographies, gardens and greenhouses of the world meet and mix it up on the wooden tables here at Lake Union Wholesale Florists. California artichokes on their fat stems contrast with exotic Hawaiian honeycombs. Fragrant stacks of stock in shades of white, peach, yellow and purple are piled 2 feet deep, sweetly scenting the chilly air. The orchids come from Thailand, the weird foliages from New Zealand or Australia, and Israel produces many of the supremely beautiful roses. In spring and summer, the tables are full of flowers from the West Coast. In autumn, the billowy peonies come from South America, and at Christmastime many of the flowers are shipped from production greenhouses in Holland. Just now, the lilacs are magnificent, in huge clusters, each bud looking as if it will open to a flower as large as a grape.
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Rough, concrete floors, wooden slabs of tables and the cold early dawn contrast sharply with the pastel loveliness of scented stock piled high at Lake Union Wholesale Florists, which opens at 5 a.m. six days a week.
Roses come to market with their fragile petals protected by woven snoods, as tightly tucked up as a little old lady's hairdo in a Jane Austen novel.
"We have a guy who goes around and asks to cut things out of local gardens — we couldn't fill our orders just from California, they just don't have enough," explains saleswoman Sue Gregory.

Even the bare-bones, concrete-floored, plain-metal warehouse can't dampen the flamboyant effect of all those flowers. The big, flat slabs of tables are piled deep in sumptuous colors in every imaginable shade of purple, in pinks and roses, oranges and yellows, russet, cream and shimmery white. The flowers are bundled, stacked and straight-jacketed for protection, and you can hardly keep from slitting their restraints and fluffing them up to get the full effect of their beauty.

Men and women rush in out of the darkness, sipping coffee, hailing each other like old friends — after all, they see each other before first light nearly every morning. And they're a special group. The public can't come here. Most florists make the rounds of four or five different markets each day before they open their shops. Vendors are constantly enticing them with calls to come closer and sniff or marvel over a new color. "This has your name on it, Martha," one shouts to florist Martha Harris, a pro at swiftly scanning all the wares. She is my hostess this morning, interpreting the scene as we go. While the atmosphere of the place is jolly and compatible on the day I visit, she explains that when there aren't enough flowers to go around, which happens when a plane doesn't get through Chicago, or there's bad weather somewhere, the friendly rivalry can turn ruthless.

The rush-rush feel of this business is clear from the clatter, the clang, the push and the general air of urgency. The length of time a flower is in transit from the ground until you take it home varies, and here at the warehouse it is at about mid-point in its journey. Many of the flowers are now shipped hydroponically so they're constantly in water, avoiding a period of dry storage. Flowers are rushed to warehouse tables within 24 to 36 hours of when they're cut; florists then have two or three days to sell them.
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Roses in every size, style and color come from South America and Israel. Wholesale, a bunch of 25 roses costs $25 to $30.
Before Valentines Day or Mother's Day the scene is especially hectic, the flowers piled higher and the competition fiercer. Sometimes the florists are picking up special orders, but more often they're prowling the aisles, fingering the foliage to test for a telltale lack of crispness. They haul around armfuls of flowers in fear a prize might be snapped up by someone else. Some of the flowers they pack up and take with them, but most they point out to the vendors, whose trucks will deliver bushels of flowers to stores and shops within the next couple of hours.

Excitement over discoveries is palpable; one guy carefully arranging long, pale delphiniums into a box coos, "Ooh, I love these," while a 6-footer in a muscle shirt exclaims over a bunch of dark-purple lilacs. Once back at their shops, usually about the time most of us are beginning our commute to work, the florists will spend hours cleaning the flowers they've chosen, pulling off old leaves and petals, cutting stems, preparing the raw materials for arrangements.

There's artistry to the buy, for florists pause to compose as they gather, selecting complementary color tones and all the other stuff of great bouquets. Which flowers are hot this spring? Vendor Sue Gregory says customers can't seem to get enough chartreuse flowers, such as viburnums and Bells of Ireland. There's even a new 'Super Green' rose, so double that it resembles a carnation. Intensely ruffled old garden roses are "up and coming," says Gregory, admiring their high petal count and sweet scent while deploring their short shelf life of just four or five days.

So next time you order a bouquet for a gift or simply select flowers out of buckets in front of the grocery store, remember that they may well have been plucked from a Holland hothouse or an Israeli growing field halfway around the globe, rushed across the ocean, then selected by a florist in the pre-dawn hours. It's an exciting business.

"We get a thrill a day around here," says Gregory. "We'll get in something so perfect you just can't believe it, and every week there's something we haven't seen before."

The corners of the globe meet on the shores of Lake Union early every morning, with exotic flowers from Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii and South America sold alongside familiar snapdragons and sunflowers.
Floristry may be the ultimate seasonal business, but flowers are in demand all the time. To satisfy the demand, lilacs like these are sometimes cut from local gardens.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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