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The glory days of Colorado carnations

January 27, 2009

Although the study of agriculture usually brings to mind the cultivation of plants and animals for food, fuel, and clothing, one collection of documents in the Colorado Agricultural Archive deals with agricultural efforts to "feed the soul." The Records of the Colorado Flower Growers Association came to the Colorado Agricultural Archive through a donation by Dick Kingman, executive director of the association.

Carnation adColorado Flower Growers Association

The Colorado Flower Growers Association was created in 1928 to support the production and marketing of greenhouse flowers and plants. In 1949, in cooperation with horticultural researchers at Colorado A&M, the association began publishing carnation research information in a monthly bulletin.

The collection also features meeting minutes, correspondence, newsletters, scrapbooks and photographs. Major topics include publicity for Colorado carnations, research concerning the propagation, cultivation and tinting of carnations, and effective methods of shipping flowers.

In 2007, over 500 items from the collection were digitized for presentation on the website, “Carnations and the Floriculture Industry”. Highlights of the website include letters from former First Lady Mamie Eisenhower, who enjoyed receiving Colorado carnations during her years in the White House and photographs of Debbie Reynolds posing with an armful of carnations during a Denver promotion of The Unsinkable Molly Brown.


The carnation, originated from a plant that grew wild on the hillsides of ancient Greece. Europeans introduced the flower to the eastern United States during the early nineteenth century, and as Americans began moving westward, they brought their favorite flowering plants with them. Colorado, with its high altitude climate of sunny days and cool nights, proved to be an excellent place to cultivate carnations.

During the 1880s, the Denver floral industry grew rapidly, accompanied in the following decade by the construction of greenhouses. Although carnations can be grown successfully outdoors in milder climates, the greenhouse allowed producers to bring the plants indoors at the end of the summer in regions subject to freezing winter temperatures. In the early days, retail flower shops bought flowers from the greenhouse growers and delivered them in horse-drawn carriages warmed by charcoal heaters to keep the flowers from freezing in the winter.

"Denver" carnations

Colorado carnation production gained national attention in 1921 when George Brenkert of the Washington Park Floral Company entered a new variety of shellpink flower called the “Denver” in the National Flower Show in Washington, D.C. and won a bronze medal. That year, one hundred of the new “Denver” carnations were sent to the White House for Mrs. Warren G. Harding on Inauguration Day.

Colorado carnations continued to increase in popularity, and by the middle of the twentieth century, Denver had become known as the “Carnation Capital” of the world. Despite the challenge of rising fuel costs for heating or cooling greenhouses, in 1974 Colorado remained the number one producer of carnations worldwide. However, within a few years, Colorado growers faced tough competition from Colombian carnation producers, who had the advantage of a more moderate climate, cheap labor costs, and favorable trade agreements with the United States fostered by the American government’s desire to encourage Colombia to export legal crops.


The emphasis of Colorado flower growers soon shifted from carnations to other cut flowers and potted plants. Most of the carnations and other cut flowers grown in the U.S. are now produced in California, and Colorado’s flower growing efforts focus on roses and specialty plants such as poinsettias. The name of the Colorado Flower Growers Association was changed in 1979 to the Colorado Greenhouse Growers Association to reflect the increasing diversification of the industry. In 2005, the Colorado Greenhouse Growers merged with the Colorado Nursery Association to form the Colorado Nursery & Greenhouse Association.

This article was originally published in Around the Oval magazine. To subscribe to Around the Oval, become a member of the CSU Alumni Association.

Contact: Linda Meyer
Phone: (970) 491-6533