Ralph Rosazza at his Avondale, Pa. greenhouse. All photos by Jim Graham.
It rained all night and all day. But when the sun emerges by mid-afternoon, it’s almost as if Ralph Rosazza cast some spell. “I was looking … But no, no, no. There’s no magic wand,” says the veteran grower. “This is what has kept me alive.”
As he speaks, the 88-year-old walks under the greenhouse ventilators he’s opened and closed for decades, stopping to check the buds on the snapdragons. “Reds come in too late and take too long, so we grow whites, pinks and yellows,” he says. “Lavender takes a lot longer, but no one wants lavender—or at least not much of it.”
A third-generation grower based in Avondale, Pa., Rosazza Son’s Florist & Greenhouses has a variety of seasonal options, including Easter bulbs, geraniums, vegetable plants, mums and poinsettias. Right now, Ralph is tucking snapdragon blooms into four stacked layers of woven wire racks that keep them growing straight. All the “snap” will bloom a second time in April, then be cut and shipped mostly to flower shows and fairs in Kennett Square and Oxford, Pa., and Wilmington, Del.
Rosazza once sold flowers to the White House. He specialized in carnations, England’s “divine flower,” first introduced to our Eastern Seaboard in the early 1800s. New York’s Charles Willis Ward popularized the carnation in 1903 with his book The America Carnation—How to Grow It. The American Carnation Society was formed in 1892, surviving until 1981.
Rosazza supplied carnations to Harry Truman, George Bush Sr. and many presidents in between. Since then, the cut-flower industry has shifted operations to South America, becoming too expensive to be profitable. This wilting of a low-key industry is a story throughout southern Chester County, which was once known as the Carnation Belt.
The heyday for some 25 local family growers lasted from the 1920s into the ’30s. As late as the early 1950s, there were still 50 flower greenhouse operations between Oxford and Chadds Ford. But Richard Nixon’s presidency introduced trade inroads into Columbia, which started exporting flowers here. Labor costs there were as low as 27 cents an hour. “We were paying over $1 an hour,” says Rosazza.
The Rosazzas were cutting 1,500 carnations a day at one point, investing just 7 cents per flower. By the end, it was costing $1.17 per flower, and they were cutting less than 750. They finished in the red for two or three years before packing the last one in 2016.
Over the years, Ralph’s sons, Ronnie and Danny, have helped keep the diversified family greenhouses alive, overseeing 13,000 square feet of indoor growing under glass and another 3,000 under plastic. There are six greenhouses on an acre of property. The other 4.5 acres are underwater and too low to grow on, but it’s fine for raising cattle.
After 31 years with his father full time, Danny is now making parts for jet engines. Ronnie, the oldest, is also an owner at the neighboring Glenn Willow Orchard. “Dad knows more about flowers than anyone,” he says.
At the turn of 20th century, Ralph’s grandfather, Odone, left the Italian town of Rosazza for Paris. At 16, he was in southern Chester County cutting marble in the quarries. Eventually, he’d work for five years in Gettysburg on memorial statues after the Civil War, then on marble statuary outside the courthouse in West Chester.
Odone bought his Avondale properties in 1902, building the greenhouses in 1926 and 1927. “She made him do it,” Ralph says of his grandmother.
Ralph made his own sacrifices. Upon graduating from Avon Grove High School in 1951 and playing with the Kennett American Legion, he could’ve had a shot at pro baseball. But he wanted to stay with his father and predecessor, Clarence, who died at 80 in 1984. “Business was good,” he says. “I wanted to be here. I was good to my dad, and he was good to me.”
As it turns out, mushrooms and flowers are closely related in southern Chester County’s growing history. Ralph’s family once grew both. It was convenient and made economic sense to have mushrooms under the flower- growing benches. And over time, they actually made more money than the flowers—until Avondale shut down all mushroom houses within borough limits in 1914. “Those who were moving here for cheaper housing didn’t like the smell,” says Ralph.
At Barnard’s Orchard in Kennett Square, owner-operator Lewis Barnard’s uncle, Sam, grew carnations from the 1950s through the ’80s. “The U.S taught growers in South America how to grow flowers to help them stop growing drugs to be shipped to the U.S. … or so the story goes,” says Lewis.
Heating-oil consumption was also an issue. In Colombia, it averages 70 degrees during the day and 50 degrees at night year-round. “It hurt everything in the flower industry,” Ralph Rosazza says of the exports. “A lot got out of the business.”
Veteran cut-flower salesman Chip Coleman lives in Wilmington, Del., and does business with Rosazza. In over 40 years, he’s seen at least seven outlets either gobbled up by larger wholesalers or simply fall by the wayside. His own company, Sieck-Wright Floral Products in Hightstown, N.J., closed a sister company in New Castle, Del., over a year ago. “It’s like all the mom-and-pops put out of business by Lowe’s, Home Depot, Walgreens and CVS,” he says. “But every longtime salesman has a following— just like Ralph, who’s hung on quite nicely.”
Back in the greenhouse, Ralph has been battling a ventilator for an hour. “When the sun is shining, we leave it up and open,” he says. “And when it’s cold, we shut it down tight.”
It’s a task that once took him 15 minutes. “I’m old and slow enough to call it quits, and then the boys are on their own,” he says. “I’m about the only one left as far as cut flowers go.”