Sunflower Nation

Undeniably one of the best seller cut flowers around. Sunflower comes from hyper-local farms and mega growers alike.

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Sunflower Nation

You can trace the ancestral origins of Helianthus annuus, the common sunflower, to the prairies of the United States and much of Central America. Modern-day breeding has transformed the once simple 2- to 3-inch flower into mammoth varieties, with blooms up to 12 inches in diameter, as well as statement blooms available in an array of fashionable petal colors.

There are fields across the country producing sunflowers for seed and vegetable oil, both products found on supermarket shelves. But it’s in the floral department where ornamental sunflowers really shine, serving as a beacon that excites and inspires shoppers to take home bright, cheery bunches as a habitual practice.

Here are two sunflower case studies, shared from the perspectives of cut flower growers and grocery floral buyers. In the first model, sunflowers are marketed throughout the calendar year due to the grower’s diversification into Baja, Mexico, during the winter months.

In the second model, sunflowers are seasonal and hyper-local, coming from a certified organic farm to supply a specialty grocery chain outside Dayton, Ohio.

These stories represent opposite ends of the floral distribution pipeline, but together they underscore the fact that there is a sunflower program for every type of grocery store and every type of customer.

ALL SUNFLOWERS, ALL THE TIME
For Ryan Sanchez, floral sales manager for Southern California’s Albertsons/Pavilions/Vons stores, which includes 345 outlets, sunflowers are increasingly a year-round essential. “During the summer, the sunflower is our No. 1-selling cut flower.” Expanding their floral departments to include sunflowers during all 12 months of the year has been a bonus for the category, he says.

“Before, we pretty much offered sunflowers from May through Thanksgiving because that was the California season,” Sanchez explains. “When we added sunflowers in the off-season, the response from customers was good, and it helped our cut flower category as a whole. Having sunflowers through the winter months helps with colors and merchandising, too. It gives our customers more options, especially during December when all you see otherwise is red and white.”

Customers of Albertsons/Pavilions/Vons now enjoy four seasons of sunflowers, thanks to a relationship with Vista, Calif.-based Dos Gringos LLC, an established grower specializing in sunflowers as an all-year crop.

Dos Gringos President Jason Levin explains why the 30-year-old company shifted from producing a broad selection of field-grown cut flowers to sunflower-focused production in 1996.

“We decided to specialize and be the best in the world in one flower. We picked the sunflower because we thought we could grow it year-round,” he says. “At that point, sunflowers were just a seasonal option, viewed as a ‘summer’ or ‘fall’ flower. We started to work with breeders directly and helped develop the green-center sunflower and some other colors.” The lighter-colored centers are more popular during the spring, he notes.

Dos Gringos’ sunflower production reaches beyond its headquarters in San Diego County, across the U.S.- Mexico border, into Mexico. “From Carlsbad, we expanded into different microclimates around Southern California but also in Central Mexico, northern Mexico and the Baja region,” Levin says. “Depending on the time of year, we are growing sunflowers in six to 10 areas. We harvest sunflowers 360 days a year.”

“We’ve focused on grower-to-grocery-direct versus selling to bouquet makers or wholesalers, shortening the [delivery] time to give consumers a longer, better experience with sunflowers,” Levin explains.

Dos Gringos offers several sunflower options, from three- to seven-stem single-variety bunches: traditional (dark center) sunflowers; green-center sunflowers and artisanal/novelty varieties, such as red, mahogany or tinted sunflowers. “We also make wildflower bouquets using sunflowers, greens and accent flowers that go well with sunflowers, such as Dianthus and Asters,” Levin adds.

At the Southern California Albertsons/Vons/Pavilions stores, the traditional, five-stem sunflower bunch sells for $4.99; the novelty, five-stem bunch is $5.99; the mixed sunflower bouquet is priced at $12.99 and the sunflower-filled Mason jar arrangement is priced at $9.99. Dos Gringos provides floral departments with a display rack for sunflower-filled Mason jars, popular as a grab-and-go feature at the front of his stores, Sanchez says.

“It’s one of the first things customers see as they walk in. The good thing is that Dos Gringos switches out the display every two weeks so it’s always a different look for the customer.”

Sunflower Nation
‘Sunbeam’ Orange
Sunflower Nation
Greenburst
Sunflower Nation
Copper
Sunflower Nation
‘Sunsplash’
Sunflower Nation
Red (dyed)

LOCAL AND SEASONAL
At Dorothy Lane Market in Dayton, Ohio, the floral department holds its own alongside a made-from-scratch bakery and deli as well as gourmet meat and produce departments. The 70-year-old family-owned chain has three stores and puts a priority on locally sourced, Ohio-grown offerings are a top priority, says floral director Stuart Delk.

“We’ve been doing ‘local’ long before it was a buzzword,” he explains. “I go to competitors and other groceries and see that to them ‘local’ means being sourced from 500 miles away. We don’t do that. For us, ‘local’ is being able to get there and back in one morning.”

That said, Dorothy Lane Market begins sourcing sunflowers from California farms on May 1, giving shoppers an early dose of summer.

“It’s all timed so that when local sunflowers start blooming around the first of July, we stop [bringing in] California product and go into this period of locally-grown sunflowers,” Delk explains.

To stock flowers for all three of Dorothy Lane Market branches, Delk personally visits each of his farm vendors. “I know the growers. I speak to them on a weekly basis,” he explains of the eight to 10 flower farms supplying the chain at any given time.

Sunflower Nation
“Grown to Bring Smiles” is the message of Dos Gringos’ popular Mason jar sunflower bouquet program.
Sunflower Nation
That Girl’s Flowers specializes in growing the classic brown-centered ‘Zohar’ sunflower, thanks to the availabil-ity of organic seeds.

Nellie Ashmore, owner of That Girl’s Flowers in Clarksville, Ohio, is one of his top sunflower sources. “A lot of times, we’ll get sunflowers the same day she harvests. The product will be on the shelves a few hours later. That’s very different from shipping in product that you have to hydrate and wait for those flowers to open,” Delk explains.

Ashmore grew up on her parents’ certified organic produce farm, named That Guy’s Family Farm. Six seasons ago, she started a sister business and kept the branding similar, using That Girl’s Flowers while co-farming with her parents.

That Girl’s Flowers now supplies seasonal flowers to all three of the Dorothy Lane Market outlets as well as another small grocery store and an area farmers’ market. Ashmore also sells flowers and CSA bouquets at her family’s farm store. From May through October, Dorothy Lane Market carries That Girl’s Flowers’ bouquets, which range in price from $2.50 for a mini bouquet (which retails for $4.99) to $7.50 for a 12-stem mixed bouquet (which retails for $14.99).

Local sunflower season kicks in from July through September, when That Girl’s Flowers supplies the chain with 500 stems of sunflowers each week. Ashmore wholesales the sunflowers for $1 per stem, or $5 per bunch, which Dorothy Lane Market retails for $8.99 per bunch. “I really can’t say enough about how amazing it is selling to them,” Ashmore says of the farm-to-grocery relationship.

She grows a sunflower variety called ‘Zohar’, which is a traditional brown-centered sunflower with yellow petals. “I can grow varieties that are not organic as long as the seeds aren’t treated. But whenever I can buy organic seed, I do. It’s really fortunate that ‘Zohar’, the sunflower variety I really love, is available in organic seed.”

SELLING SUNFLOWERS
Sunflowers practically sell themselves, appealing to shoppers of all kinds. “They are just a classic flower,” Ashmore says. “I love mixing them in my bouquets, too, because I think when someone sees a sunflower, he or she is more likely to be attracted to it.”

Stuart Delk believes sunflowers are a “hit” because of their broad appeal. “I also think the immediate perceived value is good. If you have a single stem of Ranunculus, you might have a higher cost per stem than a single stem of sunflowers, plus it doesn’t look like much. One sunflower looks like a lot. Three sunflowers in a bunch looks like a whole lot. We sell our local sunflowers in five-stem bunches. For a customer to pick up a bunch with two-foot-long stems and big, open flowers, I think there is a perceived value that causes shoppers to say, “Man, this is something.”

Jason Levin wants to make the sunflower the “banana of the flower department.” I was a little confused by that statement until I ran it past Ryan Sanchez. Amused with the notion, Sanchez pointed out that, “bananas are the No. 1-selling item, volume-wise, in any grocery store, so no wonder Dos Gringos wants to achieve ‘banana’ status.”

The takeaway is undeniable. “Walking into a grocery store and seeing yellow sunflowers, the color of highest visibility, is key. It’s an affordable luxury,” Sanchez says.

He added, “Sure, customers can still buy roses and other bouquets, but why not spend five bucks for a bunch of sunflowers every week? It brightens the home, it brightens the mood, and it’s a lot cheaper than a week’s worth of skinny, nonfat, decaf lattes.”

COMING UP NEXT

According to Jason Levin, here’s what’s next in sunflowers:

  • White-petal sunflowers “The breeding has some work left, but it’s coming.”
  • Spray sunflowers “A five-stem bunch of spray sunflowers can have up to 15-plus blooms.”

Details
Albertsons: albertsons.com, @albertsons
Dos Gringos Flower Co.: dosgringos.com, @2gringosflowers
Dorothy Lane Market: dorothylane.com, @dorothylanemarket
That Girl’s Flowers: thatgirlsflowers.com, @thatgirlsflowers

By Debra Prinzing
Debra Prinzing is a Seattle-based writer, speaker and leading advocate for American Grown Flowers. She is the producer of slowflowers.com. Each Wednesday, approximately 2,500 listeners tune into her “Slow Flowers Podcast,” available for free down-load at her website, debraprinzing.com, or on iTunes and via other podcast services. In 2016, GWA: The Association for Garden Communicators inducted her into its Hall of Fame. She is the author of 10 books, including Slow Flowers and The 50 Mile Bouquet.