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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.