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As the world spiralled and we adapted to life in homes that have become offices and schools, the bouquet became a popular way to brighten up our lives

Alyssa Sager talks on the phone with a flower farmer while Paige Michelmore trims roses at Leis de Buds in Vancouver.Photography by Alec Jacobson/The Globe and Mail

The walls of Leis de Buds flower shop were decked with fir boughs and potted poinsettias as masked holiday shoppers in Vancouver drifted through, carefully edging around each other in early December. Coronavirus cases had reached a record high in British Columbia and stricter public-health guidelines loomed on the horizon, making it hard to imagine what the world might look like in a week, much less by Christmas.

But Alyssa Sager was ready to forecast her business well into 2021. “When should we talk about Valentine’s Day?” she said into the phone, placing flower orders with a farmer. In order for April showers to bring May flowers, someone has to plant them in the fall, so the floral industry is always a few steps ahead of the season. As Ms. Sager’s store was selling wreath-making kits, she was angling for her share of spring blooms.

While many retail businesses are wondering if they’ll survive the year when COVID-19 has dampened the holiday shopping season, the floral industry has a relatively rosy outlook at the end of a chaotic 2020.

This past April, the picture was bleak. Half of all flowers are sold between Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day every year, but, as the world locked down in March, flower sales wilted, leaving mountains of carefully planned and tended blooms behind to mould. Canadian flower farmers lost an estimated $30-million to $37-million in the first month of the lockdown and may be down as much as $100-million for the year, according to Flowers Canada Growers, an organization that represents floriculture greenhouse growers.

An old bouquet at River and Sea Flowers on Westham Island, B.C.

But then Canadians shifted from hoarding toilet paper to adapting to life in homes that have become offices and schools, and the small luxury of brightening the scenery with a bouquet, however short-lived, grew in value. Plant sales rose steadily through the summer, and now imports of plant starts and other industry inputs that will seed 2021′s blooms are up nearly 1 per cent over 2019.

The floral industry operates a sophisticated global commodities exchange that whisks roses from Quito to Quebec at the peak of freshness, and yet it is a notoriously old-fashioned business based on personal relationships and the ability to smell the merchandise. But it pivoted from ruin to optimism this year by making a rapid shift to a new digital age.

“I probably spent 18 hours per day optimizing my website,” Ms. Sager remembered, thinking back to March in the days after the shutdown. As the world spiralled, she shifted into overdrive to transition her prime-location retail shop into an online business.

Before she opened Leis de Buds, Ms. Sager was Elon Musk’s chief of staff at Space X and Tesla, and so she came into the flower business with a shoot-for-the-moon vision to revolutionize the industry with a Silicon Valley approach to selling locally grown flowers. She had hoped to grow steadily in that direction, but COVID-19 forced her to speed up her plans.

A knife and shears used to separate dahlia tubers sit on a board in a greenhouse after being sanitized at River and Sea Flowers.

Most of the blooms in most bouquets in Vancouver are jetted in from places such as Colombia, Israel and Holland, but, Ms. Sager said, “when the pandemic hit, a lot of flowers were not flown in.” Since launching in 2017, she had been steadily building up a network of flower growers within driving distance to reduce her carbon footprint. When flower imports dropped off in March, her locavore vision paid off.

“I had these relationships with farms,” she said, and so, supported by its new web presence, Leis de Buds had a record Mother’s Day.

“The beauty of COVID is that it pointed people in the direction of sustainability and local,” Ms. Sager said. “The business grew this year, which is pretty shocking.” Now she’s eyeing expansion into an adjacent storefront and farther into the digital marketplace.

Bob Pringle, CEO of United Flower Growers and United Floral, stands in the newly expanded cash-and-carry section of the United Floral wholesale warehouse in Burnaby, B.C.

Bob Pringle was not necessarily surprised. He has seen recessions before as the CEO of United Flower Growers, a co-op of regional farmers that runs one of the largest flower auctions in North America, and of United Floral, a wholesaler of flowers from British Columbia and around the world. “Past recessions have also been smaller for the flower industry,” he said, explaining that sales were strong in 1981 after the energy crisis and also after the market crash in 2008.

“Imagine buying something for a relatively small amount that makes you feel better,” Mr. Pringle said, adding that he’s seen flowers in the background on many Zoom calls.

Nonetheless, both businesses had to make significant shifts because of the coronavirus. After the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic in mid-March, Mr. Pringle remembered, “for five consecutive weeks, our business was down 50 per cent.”

Flowers are temporarily stored in the empty flower auction room at the United Flower Growers auction in Burnaby.

A worker wheels flowers through the warehouse at United Flower Growers.

As soon as the lockdown began, the auction that has run continuously since 1963 was moved online.

The cavernous auditorium where flowers are paraded daily in front of bidding clocks is silent now, but United Flower Growers has been developing and using proprietary software for decades, and so was able to seamlessly continue auctioning fresh blooms remotely.

“We were able to do it almost overnight,” Mr. Pringle said. The shift has since streamlined the process, cutting out the hours that buyers would spend drinking coffee in the cafeteria while waiting between the end of the auction and flower distribution. The change to digital has been so popular that they may never bring the in-person auctions back.

Business started to recover in June, as consumers invested in their gardens and as United Floral expanded its cash-and-carry room to support florists who needed to fine-tune their retail stores around evolving health guidelines. By the fall, sales were bouncing back.

“I don’t like to call us a winner, but we’ve been on the plus side,” Mr. Pringle said, sitting in the United Flower Growers boardroom.

Rachel Ryall wheels a cart out of the new greenhouse at River and Sea Flowers.

In a greenhouse on Westham Island in Delta, B.C., Rachel Ryall placed her bet that business will improve in 2021 as she patted the dirt into place around a ranunculus tuber. The flowers will bloom through the spring, and, she said, “We’re planting more this year because we’ve got the space and I have the confidence that we can sell them all.”

This past March, she wasn’t so sure. Her farm, River and Sea Flowers, normally sells single stems and bouquets in farmers’ markets, but many of the markets were restricted to food sellers only this year which left Ms. Ryall with a greenhouse full of flowers.

“I could see all the plants budding up. I could see them all coming in an avalanche,” she remembered. “It felt like the only thing we could do was throw them away.”

She added a flower subscription to her website and hoped that she could at least save a few of her flowers from the compost pile. But she quickly sold out. “Our customers at the market, they were looking for these flowers,” she said, and they were happy for a chance to escape to her quiet fields to pick up their weekly flower selection.

“A lot of people were like, ‘This is the best part of my week.’”

Ms. Ryall was able to hire an extra farmer and buy a new, heated greenhouse that will allow her to expand her offerings next year. She plans to sell at farmers’ markets again but she knows now that she has a digital strategy in case that fails. “It’s a pretty rudimentary site,” she said, but apparently it works.

As vaccine approvals march forward and some economic indicators inch back toward pre-pandemic levels, Ms. Ryall is confidently sowing seeds and planting bulbs.

“We probably grow about 600 different flowers,” she said, including some that will supply Ms. Sager’s Leis de Buds store in the spring.

Ryall plants a ranunculus tuber at River and Sea Flowers.

Ryall separates dahlia tubers while her daughter, Adelaide Doig, watches at River and Sea Flowers.

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