Johnson's Flower Center has been a fixture among area plant lovers since 1933, providing them with everything from potting soil to exotic flora.

Last weekend, employes and several hundred customers of the popular business at Wisconsin Avenue and Van Ness Street NW, helped celebrate the firm's 50th anniversary.

During the two days of festivities, as colored streamers hung for the occasion trailed in the warm afternoon breeze, roving clowns handed out gift certificates and lollipops to children while the CAISO steel-drum ensemble kept the crowd swaying and clapping to lively Carribean rhythms under the store's huge wraparound awning.

Owner and president Ray Johnson Jr. recalled the store's humble beginning as a small mom-and-pop market in 1928.

A builder and carpenter by trade, Johnson's father had set up a small grocery stand to tide his family over through that winter of the impending Depression. He sold fresh vegetables and dry goods to area residents, until a neighbor gave him several geranium plants to sell on consignment. Soon customers were buying more plants than groceries, and Johnson's florist business was born.

The rapidly expanding business had to shift to larger quarters several times before finally settling in at its present location in 1973. "I was really scared then," Johnson Jr. said. "Everyone said it wouldn't work, but here we are."

The business since has grown to include a store each in Rockville and Gaithersburg run by Johnson's younger brothers Mike and Marshall.

Noting it is still a family establishment, Johnson said 16 couples who met at the store later married, including him and his wife Kathy. His son Russell and daughter Katie also help manage the parent store.

"Many of my managers started working here in high school, and they stay with us. Two of my kids were delivered by one of my former employes who went on to become a doctor."

After 15 years as president, Johnson said he enjoys the daily challenge of running the thriving business, working out of an office in the rear of the store. He spends two days a week as a floor manager, directing traffic and answering customers' questions.

"I get a lot of enjoyment out of it," he said. "It's a gamble some days, but that is what makes it interesting. Like any business, we have our hardships, like the weather, but we don't cry about it."

"When you walk into the store, I've got you trapped--all you see is a mass of color and even if you came in to apply for a job, you wind up walking out of here with a bunch of flowers."

Older women in straw gardening hats and youngsters wearing shorts and sneakers watched flower arrangement and bowmaking demonstrations at Sunday's celebration as the scents of budding hibiscus and African violets wafted through the store.

Some customers poked and prodded the fresh vegatables or examined the canned peach and cherry perserves. Others watched professional glassblower Jerry Ungar craft hollow tubes of crystal into delicate figurines.

Some customers said they have long relied on the products and employes at Johnson's to provide them with the merchandise and service some consider a thing of the past.

"I have always stuck to my father's theory of turning the money you can save in advertising dollars back to our customers in terms of savings. We depend on word of mouth advertising, and it seems to work for us," Johnson said.

"One customer told me that if he were still alive, today would be my father's proudest day. I would like to believe that was true."

Three-year-old Arielle Steinberg who bicycled with her sister Mirette, 5, and their parents to the celebration, said she especially enjoyed the face painting session.

"I'm not going to wash it off 'cause I want to be a clown when I grow up," she said, grinning from behind the colorful greasepaint.

Another set of sisters, Theresa and Helen Gartland reminisced about traveling by streetcar with their mother to shop for fresh goods before Johnson's became a florist business.

"Our family knew the Johnson's very well. Now I am a 30-year customer and if I want a couple of azalea or something for my garden I know to come here," Theresa Gartland said.

"It's traditional, it's unique," her sister added, "and there is no other place like it."