The phone conversation went like this, "Got a problem with Samantha. Open. Open. Open."
Four Styrofoam chests of ice-packed, cut red roses sat on the floor. And the phone call to California reported the Samantha roses had arrived in Baltimore too open to sell.
All around Claymore E. Sieck's wholesale flower warehouse customers scooped up enough pink carnation bundles for every grandmother in Arbutus.
The preparations for Mother's Day hit Baltimore's wholesale flower market as surely as the guilt of a forgetful child attaches itself to this annual Maytime ritual. But roadside sellers, mall pushcart and kiosk vendors and neighborhood florists had better be ready. Certainly Baltimore's wholesale flower merchants are.
The Sieck firm, founded nearly 100 years ago, does not advertise. Its sales personnel will not sell retail. "We kick more people out of here than we let in," said one salesman, who didn't want his name used.
Nevertheless, the wholesale florist's name is painted across a cinderblock building in the 300 block of E. Chase St., within the shadow of the Maryland Penitentiary and alongside the Jones Falls Expressway and Fallsway. The name is big so the delivery trucks can find it. It's a busy address, along a few blocks from the 800 block of Calvert St., where the city's wholesale florists were once crowded into 19th century rowhouses.
Early in the morning, Sieck's is a blitzkrieg of flower power. Pushcarts top-heavy with bachelor's button, baby's breath and birds of paradise fly down the aisles, en route to the nuptial altars, hospital rooms, dining tables and funeral parlors of Baltimore.
Casa Blanca lilies (dazzling white), delphinium (deep blue) and liatris (hot purple) rest in tubs in chilled rooms off to the sides of the main selling floor. There are whole rooms full of ribbon bolts, potted plants and the supplies like the plastic picks, made in China, that read "Happy Mother's Day" in shocking pink. The Mother's Day novelties are running low. But next to them is an full inventory of Father's Day, graduation and other paraphernalia that would dizzy the imagination of a Hallmark greeting card copy writer.
The days when cut flowers merely meant roses, snapdragons, carnations and the ever-present chrysanthemum are gone. Thanks to air freight and refrigerated tractor-trailers, exotic flowers arrive daily at Chase Street from Mexico, Peru, Colombia, Thailand, Holland, California and Florida. The scene is duplicated at other city flower wholesalers, such as S.S. Pennock and Calvert, both on Cold Spring Lane.
It's hard to predict what the buying public appetite will be for any holiday. "We'll see if there's a kick in Mother's Day this year . . . when the demand [for cut flowers] outstrips what the florist has on hand," said the anonymous Sieck's employee.
Not all the flowers sold for Mother's Day come from out-of-state. The Rye Brothers, who have nearly seven acres and 13,000 hothouse rose bushes in Perry Hall, are survivors of a once-thriving cut-flower industry along Belair and Harford roads.
"The imports give us a fit," said Howard Rye, whose family has been in the business since 1957. He describes Mother's Day as the "best rose market" of the year because the production is much better in May. "The days are longer. Valentine's Day brings higher prices, but we have more volume now," he said. This week some 4,000 of his cut stems will leave his property and roll down U.S. 40 to a Fleet Street wholesaler.
Paul Babikow is the third generation of his family in the commercial business. His White Marsh farm produces thousands of perennial plants wholesaled to garden shops and gardening catalog houses. His family began as truck farmers who sold bunches of larkspur and delphinium as a sideline at the Belair Market on Gay Street. This week, when the majority of his potted plants leave his fields, is his busiest of the year.
And don't forget the potted geraniums given as Mother's Day gifts. Members of the Radebaugh family have operated out of their classic greenhouses on Burke Avenue south of Towson since 1924. Theirs is one of the few local producers who sell in both retail and wholesale quantities. Radebaughs once grew carnations, mums, Dutch iris and roses as cut flowers in their hothouses, but now specialize in potted annuals, like their trademark red geranium.
"From ageratum to zinnias, we sell them all in the good earth," said Carroll Radebaugh.