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The Flower Fields in Carlsbad go virtual

Carlsbad's The Flower Fields in peak bloom. In April, the city of Carlsbad will launch its fourth-annual Petal to Plate promotion where local hotels, restaurants and spas will offer flower-themed food, cocktails, therapies and events.
(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Annual floral attraction that drew nearly 300,000 last year faces near total loss of its 2020 season

Every spring, nearly 300,000 people visit The Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch, an ephemeral agricultural attraction highlighted by more than 50 acres of vibrantly colored ranunculus blooms.

This year, the 10-week growing season was barely underway when the COVID-19 public-gatherings ban forced the shutdown of the tourist magnet on March 17. That was followed by the near-total loss of the Flower Fields’ wholesale cut-flower business as public demand for bouquets paled in comparison to toilet paper and canned goods.

But nobody told the flowers. Over the past four weeks, millions of ranunculus plants have emerged from seeds planted in stages over the winter to ensure dozens of acres were always in bloom through Mother’s Day weekend. All of that untapped beauty gave Flower Fields co-owner Paul Ecke III an idea.

If the public can’t visit The Flower Fields this spring, then why not capture the flowers in peak season for virtual tours? Over the past two weeks, Ecke and the farm’s longtime general manager, Fred Clarke, have been filming guided tours of the fields and the property’s other attractions.

Fred Clarke (left), general manager at The Flower Fields, shoots an Instagram Live video with publicist Sonja Strand on April 16, 2020 in Carlsbad, California. The fields are in full bloom but the popular springtime attraction is closed to the public due to the Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.
(Eduardo Contreras/Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

During a 20-minute Instagram Live broadcast on Thursday afternoon, Clarke walked among hundreds of multicolored rows of flowers stretching as far as the eye could see. He answered questions from nearly 100 viewers and promised that even though the Flower Fields are down right now, they’re not out.

“We’ll be back better than ever next year,” Clarke said. “This place is floraculture history. It’s world-class color you can’t experience anywhere else.”

Over the past quarter-century, the Flower Fields have become one of the region’s most-photographed tourist attractions. In the early years, Clarke was thrilled to welcome 75,000 visitors between March 1 and Mother’s Day weekend. But with the advent of Instagram and other platforms, business exploded.

Fred Clarke (right), general manager at The Flower Fields, shoots an Instagram Live video with publicist Sonja Strand on April 16, 2020 in Carlsbad, California. The fields are in full bloom but the popular springtime attraction is closed to the public due to the Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.
(Eduardo Contreras/Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

In most years, 35 to 40 weddings take place in the fields each spring and fashion designers and photographers with millions of social-media followers regularly usie the property for fashion shoots. But all of those events have been canceled through April at least, Ecke said.

The ranch property has tractor rides, a children’s playground, sweet pea maze, botanical garden, poinsettia display, orchid greenhouse and — new this year — a 1.5-acre pick-your-own blueberry patch. But the star of the property has always been the flowers themselves, the Giant Tecolote Ranunculus, a locally bred strain of an unscented Asian-born flora related to the buttercup.

The long sloping hillside, which stretches for one mile along Armada Drive from Cannon Road south to Palomar Airport Road, has been home to flowering plants since 1923, when Ecke’s grandfather, Paul Ecke Sr., moved his family’s poinsettia-growing operation south from Los Angeles.

When the Eckes transitioned from cut poinsettia flowers to potted poinsettia plants and moved their growing operations inside greenhouses, the Carlsbad fields were leased in 1965 to another local grower, Edwin Frazee. His family began farming ranunculus flowers in the 1930s and over time developed them into hardier plants with stronger stems and bigger flowers with more petals. When Frazee retired in 1993, the Eckes brought in a new grower, Mellano & Co., which has farmed the property ever since.

Up until about 20 years ago, the ranunculus flowers were grown as a bulb crop. But as home growers increasingly opted for the instant gratification of buying flowering plants at stores like Home Depot, the ranch transitioned into a cut-flower operation. Usually during the spring months, workers clip the most pristine 1 percent of flowers for shipment to floral wholesalers. The rest — about 700 million blooms each year — are left in the fields for tourists to enjoy, Clarke said.

This year, Ecke said the Flower Fields got off to a strong start on March 1, but when he started hearing that Legoland California and other area theme parks were closing, he knew the Flower Fields weren’t far behind. But unlike the theme parks, the fields can’t reopen later this summer or in the fall.

“For us, it couldn’t have hit at a worse time,” Ecke said. “It’s springtime and this is only open 10 weeks of the year, so it completely decimated our entire season. In the meantime, we had to continue to water. Then our cut-flower business went to zero overnight.”

To save money, Ecke said some of the fields that were losing their bloom have been mowed to reduce watering expenses. And the robust blueberry crop will be picked next week by a gleaning group that will donate the fruit to local food programs. Also, as Americans settle in to sheltering at home, there has been a late-breaking surge in cut-flower purchases, so Clarke said he’s starting to ship flowers again.

As long as there are flowers in bloom, Ecke and Clarke plan to keep making videos to share at instagram.com/the_flower_fields/ and facebook.com/watch/theflowerfields/. So far, there are videos featuring Clarke talking about the blueberries and the flowers, and there’s one of Ecke visiting the park’s other attractions. Still to come are educational videos Clarke will host on growing flowers and composting, which he hopes teachers can use in their online learning curriculum.

While the closure of the fields has been costly, Ecke said it’s surmountable. Over the years, the Ecke family has seen freezes, droughts, fires, pest problems and bad weather. And when they farmed in Guatemala in the 1990s, there were hurricanes and volcanoes to contend with.

“If you’re a farmer and you’ve been farming for over 100 years, you’ve seen your share of setbacks,” Ecke said. “This is not the worst thing that’s ever happened. I’m not saying it’s fun, but we’re always prepared for a disaster. I think we’ll come back, and I think people are going to be so happy.”


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