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Flower Plant Trade

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By Vivienne Walt Photographs by Sisse Brimberg

High-tech hybrids, brand names, and the Internet invade a multibillion-dollar, world-girdling business once dominated by family farms and now coming up roses.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Early this April morning William Zappettini, Jr., at the end of a ten-hour trading stint, flops into one of the last empty seats in the market’s coffee shop. The Zappettinis are veterans in the San Francisco market: William’s father began the family farms in 1921 as a new immigrant from Italy. “It was a poor man’s profession. Anyone could get into it,” says Zapp, as everyone in the market knows him. For decades the family business thrived, even during the Depression in the 1930s when Americans, too poor to buy meat, still found a way to buy “a little goodness and happiness to put on the table.” In the 1960s Zapp expanded into freight distribution, shipping flowers for more than 30 California farmers to major markets nationwide. For a while he became a local radio celebrity, advising San Franciscans each morning on what they ought to buy at their local florists. He says he was trying to encourage people to use flowers as they did in old Europe—on a daily basis, not just for special occasions.

But this is not old Europe. Like many other immigrants, the Zappettinis built their California flower farms in the area that would become Silicon Valley. By the late 1980s they found themselves and their irises, snapdragons, and tulips at the epicenter of a high-tech revolution. “Everyone wanted to buy us out, so we became real estate developers,” says Zapp. They dismantled their greenhouses and leased the property to technology companies. But leaving the San Francisco flower market is unthinkable, he says. “I love the market: just seeing the people, the flowers from all over the world.”

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In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

In 1902 the San Francisco Chronicle reported that “no other place on the Western Continent buys so lavishly from the professional florists as does this big, young, cosmopolitan town by the Golden Gate.” San Franciscans still love flowers and consider them a necessity, not just a luxury.

Flower growers of Chinese, Italian, and Japanese backgrounds have been selling their blooms in San Francisco since gold rush days, then from downtown sidewalks. After the 1906 earthquake vendors were no longer allowed to sell from outdoor markets, and the growers searched for an indoor location. From 1912 to 1924 the three groups maintained markets close to one another, and finally in 1924 united under one roof at Fifth and Howard Streets. Now the San Francisco Flower Mart occupies an entire block of buildings at Sixth and Brannan Streets. From there growers and wholesalers sell their products through long, bustling nights to florists who continue to cater to San Franciscans’ love of flowers.

—Barbara McConnell

California Flower Mart
For history and views of the San Francisco Flower Mart.

Roses, Roses, Roses
This comprehensive database covers more than 30,000 roses as well as shows, suppliers, gardens, organizations, breeders, and publications. There is even a monthly online magazine.

Society of American Florists
The site for the national trade association of the floral industry, it dispenses information on flower trends, entertaining, and decorating with flowers. You’ll find gift ideas and care tips as well. And don’t forget romance. You can even find some guidance included!


Newman, Cathy. “Perfume, the Essence of Illusion,” National Geographic (October 1998), 94-119.

Krist, Bob. “Going for the Bloom,” National Geographic Traveler (March/April 1998), 40-42.

Watkins, T. H. “The Greening of the Empire: Sir Joseph Banks,” National Geographic (November 1996), 28-53.

Ellis, William S. “The Gift of Gardening,” National Geographic (May 1992), 52-81.

Meijer, Willem. “Saving the World’s Largest Flower,” National Geographic (July 1985), 136-140.

Beer, Kathleen Costello. What Happens In the Spring. National Geographic Books, 1977.

de Roos, Robert. “The Flower Seed Growers: Gardening’s Color Merchants,” National Geographic (May 1968), 720-738.

Kneen, Orville H. “Patent Plants Enrich Our World,” National Geographic (March 1948), 357-378.


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