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LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: Gwenyfar makes a case for flowers come Valentine’s Day

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A local florist or garden shop can help find a flowering plant suitable for our area and occasion, and they can dress it up with some ribbon and a card, too.

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“What do you have planned for Valentine’s Day?” A young friend in a new relationship asked me recently. She’s at the point where figuring out Valentine’s Day and the signals it sends is key. After almost two decades of life together, Jock and I are in a slightly different place.

FLOWERS GALORE! Castle Hayne Farms is the last flower farm shipping out of the area in southeastern NC. They grow tons of cut flowers and bulbs, perfect for beautiful bouquets for any and all special occasions. Photo courtesy of Castle Hayne Farms

FLOWERS GALORE! Castle Hayne Farms is the last flower farm shipping out of the area in southeastern NC. They grow tons of cut flowers and bulbs, perfect for beautiful bouquets for any and all special occasions. Photo courtesy of Castle Hayne Farms

A few months ago I outed him publicly as a man who routinely punts Valentine’s Day. Since then, we have come to a slightly more pragmatic understanding of the occasion. Rather than candy, dinners out or jewelry, we have adapted Valentine’s Day to include the Oscar shorts at Cinematique (an event we both enjoy). Or,  in 2019, we will engage in a far more romantic experience of replacing rear break cylinders on my VW—because what could be a better way to say “I love you” than getting covered in grease and break fluid while crawling around together under the Love Bug? If that doesn’t get the windows fogged up, nothing will. (For the record: I will be the one crawling under. Jock will be holding a beer and kibitzing, but it is very romantic, regardless.)

All this got me thinking about Valentine’s Day and the place it holds in our national psyche. “It’s a Hallmark holiday,” a lot of people say. As we have explored before in this column, it is actually pretty important for getting a lot of small businesses through winter. Culturally, what are the trappings of romance that get sold as paramount in our society (lie for those whose lives are woefully lacking to not share VW restoration with their romantic partner)? Well, a quick perusal of television and newsprint advertising yielded: jewelry, candy, champagne, liquor, expensive dinners, romantic getaways, stuffed toys, flowers (some with balloons), and date-night movies.

Our local area seems to meet many of those needs—especially the flowers part.  One of the flower hubs for the East Coast is still here. Honestly, I had almost forgotten, but Ben Steelman wrote a fascinating column in the StarNews last Mother’s Day about Castle Hayne Farms, the last flower farm shipping out of the area (the Iris is their specialty). It has been rumbling around in my head since I read it.

By the mid-1920s, Castle Hayne, North Carolina, shipped 10 million flowers per year to the major metropolitan cities of the East Coast: New York, Philadelphia, Boston, etc. Steelmen mentioned Louis T. Moore’s work with the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce and the statistics about flower shipments, which grew out of a US embargo on foreign bulbs. The embargo created a market for domestic bulbs (in excess of 4 million a year from our area alone), but the Dutch farmers also grew beautiful flowers and more wholesalers were interested in the cut flowers.

As the NC Cooperative Extension Service so drolly notes, “In the 1600s and 1700s, formal cut flower production became established in the Netherlands with the development of greenhouses.”
Yes. Yes it did. I’m sure we all remember the lessons of “Tulip Mania”—the Dutch tulip market bubble of the 1600s, based upon speculation in the bulb market.

Flower production in North Carolina was not isolated to Castle Hayne, where,  according to their website, Castle Hayne Farms “has 7 acres of climate controlled greenhouses and nearly 30 acres of fields, producing mostly irises, lilies, and peonies.”

In addition in eastern North Carolina, especially up near the Dismal Swamp, another settlement of Dutch farmers growing flowers for the cut-flower and bulb market. The sunflower fields of the Terra Ceia area in Beaufort County (near the Dismal Swamp) are a tourist attraction in themselves.
The unincorporated area of Castle Hayne was named for the plantation that occupied most of the area. Owned by the Haynes family, the property came into the family of John Burgwin (of Burgwin-Wright House fame, located on the corner of Third and Market streets) when he married the Haynes’ daughter, Margaret.

In the early years of the 20th century Hugh MacRae (of the park on Oleander and College) launched several immigrant communities in the area. NCpedia describes Castle Hayne as a Dutch and Hungarian colony. Let me tell you, where there are Dutch farmers, there will be flowers. Thanks largely to the Dutch immigrants, flowers became one of New Hanover County’s major products, along with rice, peanuts, tobacco, turpentine, and cotton.

The cut-flower-growing world has changed to focus more on small-scale and hyper local boutique-style growers (like farmers’ markets), rather than the mass production that used to come out of our area. The NC Cooperative Extension Service lists 42 cut-flower farms, mostly in the central and western area of the state.  As the Co-operative Extension notes, “The loss of many large-scale producers provided niches for small local producers to compete. They could provide high-quality flowers, which have never been boxed and shipped dry.”

According to the US Department of Agriculture’s 2012 census, North Carolina ranked number eight in the nation for production of cut flowers and cut florist greens.  In addition, we were also the number five producer in the nation of bedding plants and number nine for production of flower seeds (pretty essential to continuing the plant cycle). Clearly, the floriculture business is good business for our state. Now, imagine all the plants and flowers headed to florists, farmers’ markets, garden shops and ultimately home. That’s a lot of money changing hands; hopefully, we get to keep some of it here to employ people.

Our area has endured a pretty serious alteration to the landscape, following the storms of last autumn. Not only are we faced with rebuilding homes and neighborhoods, but also the task of making them places people actually want to live, raise families and not just survive but flourish!

I joke about fixing my breaks with Jock as a Valentine’s Day gift, but spending time with him doing something I love is a wonderful gift. Cultivating our homes and creating something worth sharing is really a thoughtful gift. Just think how much your heart lifts at the sight of a bouquet of flowers or a flowering plant.  The climbing roses on our gate are an endless source of joy for me (Jock calls them the hardest working roses in North Carolina). They put out blooms almost constantly and every time I see one, I reward it with attention, praise and a smile.

No need to contemplate gifts for Valentine’s Day while considering the joy a plant continuously brings: from the moment it’s gifted ‘til it’s planted in the ground come spring, and the ongoing beautification of our area upon seeing it flower, not to mention the conversion of carbon monoxide to oxygen. A local florist or garden shop can help find a flowering plant suitable for our area and occasion, and they can dress it up with some ribbon and a card, too. It will be money well-invested for home and community.

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