Union square

Free tulips draw thousands to Union Square in SF

San Francisco’s Union Square was surrounded on Saturday by thousands of people queuing, not for the latest Apple product or fashion accessory, but to grab free tulips to celebrate spring.

Over 100,000 flowers were arranged in the center of the square for Flower Bulb Day, creating a blaze of red, pink and yellow, ready to be taken home. The bulbs were imported from the Netherlands and grown in Arcata (Humboldt county) before being shipped by eight trucks on Saturday.

Royal Anthos, a Dutch trade group that represents flower exporters, organized the event as a way to promote the industry.

President Henk Westerhof was impressed with the turnout and expected around 10,000 people to turn up on Saturday, each limited to a maximum of 15 tulips each. “People have had two dark years,” he said. “We want to go out and make them happy.”

Keeping the crowds flowing was a challenge, and dozens of Royal Anthos staff and volunteers were constantly directing flower-laden visitors to the exit.

The event was first held in 2018 in San Francisco. Westerhof originally planned for the East Coast, but the threat of frost and plunging temperatures made California more appealing, although the first two years were rainy. Early March was chosen because tulips are only in season for spring and to coincide with International Women’s Day.

“It’s a seasonal product,” Westerhof said. “In a month or two, the tulips are over.”

The event cost around $100,000 to organize, funded primarily by a European Union grant of €2 million over three years.

The choice of March would lead to unforeseen complications. In 2020, Westerhof recalls having a drink just before the event, when city officials called him and told him he had to be dropped due to the emerging threat of the coronavirus. But there were already 100,000 tulips delivered to the city, so a compromise was struck: Volunteers would hand out bouquets on the street, perhaps boosting morale in the early days of the pandemic, Westerhof said.

There were no events in 2021. While city officials last fall “almost begged” us to return, he recalled, pandemic restrictions initially made such a return uncertain. . The easing of almost all mask and vaccine mandates meant the event could take place on Saturday. There were yellow signs encouraging social distancing around the periphery of the flower displays, but as dozens of people crowded past each to get their pick, Westerhof said that wasn’t really possible.

The Union Square neighborhood has suffered retail crime and empty hotels during the pandemic, but shoppers and visitors were out in force around the square and along Market Street on Saturday, many carrying multicolored tulips in shopping bags and backpacks. Crowds lined up to catch the Powell Street cable car and even two BART workers in orange vests hung red flowers before heading back to the subway station.

“The past few weeks, with the lifting of mask restrictions and the drastic reduction in COVID cases in San Francisco, have seen larger crowds in and around Union Square,” said Marisa Rodriguez, executive director of the Union Square Alliance, in a press release. “This is by far the biggest and brightest gathering in the square since before the pandemic.”

Lisa Zhang had to wait in line for nearly two hours for tulips but had no regrets as she now had a birthday present for her grandmother. “I had a great time,” she said. Zhang planned to have lunch in the area afterwards and expected many other tulip fans to shop as well. “I feel like it would help businesses around Union Square,” she said.

Anil Krishna Tangudu came from Sunnyvale with his family, including cousins ​​from Seattle, wanting to experience a tulip festival for the first time. It was the biggest crowd he had seen in San Francisco during the pandemic, but he didn’t think it was a health risk.

“Nothing really bothered me,” he said, adding that he would “definitely be back.”

Roland Li is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @rolandlisf