Two floats bring California flowers back to Rose Parade


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Back in 1890 — when the population of Pasadena was 4,882 and the Rose Parade was in its earliest iteration — members of the Valley Hunt Club decorated their carriages with hundreds of blooms to showcase the region’s abundance of flowers, even in winter.

“In New York, people are buried in snow,” Charles F. Holder said at a club meeting, according to historical accounts. “Here our flowers are blooming and our oranges are about to bear. Let’s hold a festival to tell the world about our paradise.”


But somewhere along the way in the decades since, Pasadena began to import its paradise. The colorful flower petals and shiny green leaves decorating Rose Parade floats were less likely grown in California’s rose fields and more often flown in from abroad, a reflection of global shifts in the floral trade.

“The Rose Parade began as a way to flaunt California’s year-round beautiful weather by showcasing its bounty of flowers,” said Kasey Cronquist, chief executive of the California Cut Flower Commission. “Ironically, today, most floats feature flowers sourced from overseas.”

The kicker came last January. Passion Growers, a U.S. importer of South American-grown roses, signed on as a corporate sponsor of the pageant and was billed as “the official rose of the Rose Bowl.”

“It was embarrassing,” said Mike A. Mellano, production vice president at Mellano & Co. and a third-generation flower grower based in Oceanside. “Here we have this iconic domestic event, and California flowers are not even recognized as a part of it.”

That was the impetus, Mellano said, to make sure two of the 44 floats traveling along Colorado Boulevard on Monday are decorated in locally grown roses as well as California gerbera daisies, field mums, alstroemeria, solidago and gypsophila. The last time any Rose Parade float was decorated with 100% California-grown ingredients was — well, it has been so long, officials aren’t quite sure.

“It would have been decades ago,” said Rick Jackson, president of the Tournament of Roses, who has been with the organization since 1975. “The only decorating rule we have is that everything on the float has to be covered with something organic in its natural state.”

For the 123rd Rose Parade, “Cal Poly to the Rescue” (pictured above), a float created by Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Pomona students, and “Timeless Fun for Everyone” (pictured at the top of the post with Janice Vann applying flax seeds), a float sponsored by the California Clock Co., will be decorated entirely with flowers, grasses, seeds and grains harvested in state.

According to Paulina Trujillo, a Cal Poly San Luis Obispo biomedical engineering student and the university’s float decorations chairwoman, volunteers on both campuses grew statice, marigolds and other flowers to use on the float. “But we don’t have as big of a budget as other float producers,” she said, “so we rely on donations, and the California Cut Flower Commission has been really supportive.”

The trade group, which represents 250 family-owned flower farms, and the students agreed that Cal Poly’s entry would be decorated only with Golden State materials. The team is covering its superhero-themed float with an array of California’s agricultural riches, including fresh roses, gerberas and irises, as well as rice, onion seed, poppy seed, buckwheat and even tubers. Potatoes form the pathway leading to the float’s pond, Trujillo said. (Those are cranberry seeds mixed with annatto seeds to simulate a brick on the Cal Poly float, right.)

PHOTO GALLERY: California flower floats

The idea of decorating a float with imported botanicals also didn’t fly with Woody Young, chief executive of Fountain Valley-based California Clock, which has manufactured the Kit-Cat wall clock (the iconic feline with swinging tail) here for 50 years.

Young said his company has invested close to $400,000 to produce a float featuring a 28-foot-tall Kit-Cat clock, with its quirky smile and rolling eyes. Fiesta Parade Floats of Irwindale is fabricating the 55-foot-long entry, which also will have skateboarders and people dancing to a jukebox.

“Thirty years ago, we had no problem getting virtually any flower we needed from the California market,” said Fiesta President Tim Estes, a 48-year veteran of Rose Parade productions. He blames the dwindling supply of California-grown blooms on suburban sprawl that gobbles up farmland and on competition from abroad.

As the leader of a California company, Young said, he wanted to support locally grown ingredients.

“All of the parts of our clocks are made in the U.S.,” he said. “We resisted the idea of going offshore for even part of our manufacturing, so it is just fitting that we should have California fresh-cut flowers and greens on our first Rose Parade entry.”

The flower commission’s Cronquist hopes that the Kit-Cat and Cal Poly entries inspire future float sponsors to go local too.

“This idea has long-term economic development benefits because it strikes at what people are looking for when they celebrate an event as big as the Rose Parade,” he said. “It represents the largest opportunity for the flower farming community to showcase what it does on a large stage.”

It’s also a reminder of the garden splendor that drew some people to California. Mellano, who has fond memories of an after-school job in the 1970s delivering his family’s flowers to Pasadena float builders, said he expects more Rose Parade floats to sport the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s California Grown label in the future. Local farms, he said, may actually need time to catch up with “buy local” demand.

He should know. Mellano & Co. diversified years ago, and though many of its flowers are still grown on more than 400 acres in north San Diego County, today about 50% of its revenue is derived from flowers imported from Thailand, Colombia, Ecuador and the Netherlands. That may be a long way off from the 1890 promise of a California paradise, but for Mellano and others, the path back is already smelling sweet.

-- Debra Prinzing

Volunteers working on the Cal Poly float removed bougainvillea petals from woody stems.

Tina Flanagan, left, and Madi Gunther, both 13, apply strawflower seeds to the Kit-Cat float.

The completed Cal Poly float rolls down Colorado Boulevard during the Rose Parade on Monday. Credit: AP.

Detail of Cal Poly’s superhero theme. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

Detail of the back of the Cal Poly float. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

California Clock’s completed float, complete with 28-foot-tall Kit-Cat and skateboarders, makes its way along the parade route.

With a sea of California roses in the foreground, Rashell Khalfin and Aaron Altman practice their dance moves on Monday before the parade.


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Historical photo: A scene from the 1895 event. Credit: Times file photo.

All other photos, unless otherwise noted: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times