As we kick off our International Flower Market blog series at globalEDGE this week, I thought I should do a brief article talking about the history of flowers, specifically from an economic perspective. This is pretty intriguing because as a commodity flowers have no intrinsic, economic value. They just have value as decoration and whatever other cultural values are placed on them. That being said, the flower market is currently a $32.5 billion industry. Looks like flowers are much more than just a hobby for retirees.
Flowers have been around just as long as humans have, which makes it extremely difficult to quantify when flowers were used for explicitly human purposes. However, it is known that many ancient cultures did use flowers in certain ceremonies. Flowers were most commonly used in ways that are still around today: ceremonies such as funerals and weddings. They were also used to decorate warriors and leaders before they went off to war or in the coronation process.
Most of the meanings associated with flowers in ancient times are affixed with religious beliefs or the usefulness of the plant. For instance, apple blossoms were used in weddings in ancient Greece because of the importance of apples in the Grecian diet. It helped to signify wishes for the newlyweds to live a filling and satisfying life. In ancient Egypt and India, lotus flowers had quite a religious influence. This could be because lotus flowers grew in the rivers (the Nile and Ganges) that were so vital to the area (leading the ancient cultures to draw a connection between them and the gods). Another reason may be that lotuses open their flowers every morning but close the leaves together every night (causing the major religions in the area to draw parallels between that pattern and the cycles of rebirth and recreation in their respective religion).
Flowers are used for much of the same purposes today. Poppies are associated with death and are often used at funerals (especially for soldiers), while chrysanthemums are representative of fidelity and are often given on wedding anniversaries.
Despite that flowers are usually used for aesthetic purposes, the selling of flowers is a huge business. There is no better example of this then in the 1600s Dutch tulip trade. Tulips were introduced to the Netherlands in the early 17th century and were immediately popular with the wealthy, who used them to flaunt their money with gardens on their estates. Soon after, the flowers were affected by a virus which caused them to grow vivid color streaks in their leaves. This further increased demand for the bulbs of tulips.
Eventually, tulips became accessible to the common market, which bought and sold tulips like crazy. The actual tulip bulb didn’t even exchange hands most of the time, simply a note promising the bulb to the possessor with a brief description of the purchase. Prices for these bulbs shot through the roof, with some people trading land and even houses for bulbs. Of course, the value of a tulip bulb is much less than that and the market self-corrected, but the crash left the Netherlands in a depression for several years. Many people lost entire livelihoods by betting all of their worth on tulip bulbs; making this episode by far the most fascinating moment in flower economics history. While flowers may be primarily used as décor and cultural reminders, there can be serious implications in the trade of them.
Be sure to check out the rest of the blog series this week where we will be talking about the logistical structure of the international flower trade, flower markets and expos of the world, and current trends in the global flower market!