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Sunday, 25 February 2007

The Story Behind that Bouquet Sitting on Your Desk

UT grad's book takes deep look at $40 billion cut-flower industry.


By Jill Nokes

February 15, 2007

Everyone in the cut-flower industry should read Amy Stewart's new book, "Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers." But let's give hard-working florists a little time to recoup after Valentine's Day, their biggest moneymaker. It's the day when one in three American adults buys a flower or plant, ringing up one-third of all cut flower sales for the year.

Flower-loving consumers should read this book, too. Within a lively personal narrative, Stewart shares her well-researched insights into the $40 billion industry. Americans alone buy about 10 million flowers a day, yet our understanding of where these flowers come from and what it takes to grow them remains vague at best.

"Flower Confidential" explains how our favorite flowers are produced, handled and shipped to the market so that we can fill a vase on our dining room table. Stewart's broad curiosity and romantic appreciation of flowers' power to reconcile, flatter and console have clearly persuaded people in every aspect of the industry to open up to her.

Stewart graduated from the University of Texas and has been a garden writer since 1995. She received California's Horticultural Writer's Society award in 2005 for her book "The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of the Earthworm." Our conversation took place by phone from her home in Eureka, Calif. . . .

Austin American-Statesman: You now live in Northern California, but your personal history includes a Texas chapter as well.

Amy Stewart: I grew up in Arlington and then went to UT for both undergrad and graduate school. I just miss Austin desperately all the time. It's very much my spiritual hometown. I'm thrilled to get to come back. When I got out to Santa Cruz and started gardening, I was inspired by Petaluma Pete (former American-Statesman music writer Ed Ward), who had a food column in the Austin Chronicle many years ago. I thought, what an amazing way to write about food. I started writing a gardening column that I hoped would capture some of that same spirit and be sort of personal and interesting — about gardening, but about other things as well. I consider myself more of a writer who gardens than a garden writer.

Your first two books were intimate chronicles of your own garden-making. What got you interested in tackling such a huge subject as the cut flower industry?

This topic really did start on a real local level for me. I live in Eureka, California, where the largest grower of cut flowers in the country has one of its four farms here in my community, and I'd taken a tour of it and was just astonished to find that flowers are grown in a factory and not in a big beautiful field, which is kind of what I had pictured.

You spent several years visiting different production and transportation centers of the floral industry. You visited the huge flower auction market in Aalsmeer, Holland, an Ecuadoran rose farm, the Miami airport, which is a major hub for flowers imported from Latin America, laboratories investing in complex and secret breeding programs, as well as specialty florist shops and a violet grower who raises his crop the old-fashioned way. What was the most unexpected thing you learned in your travels?

I was really surprised to find out how durable flowers are. Seventy-eight percent of the flowers we buy are grown somewhere else, almost entirely in Latin America. And for a rose to be able to live with no water at all for two to three days in trucks and planes and warehouses before they finally end up in a flower shop where they'll be put in a vase is just astonishing to me.

You write, "Do I really want that cheap bouquet of roses if I know it's been sprayed with pesticides that are illegal in the United States and that were applied by a minimum-wage earning Ecuadorian in an ill-fitting gas mask?" You point out that consumers have a difficult time making socially responsible choices because most flowers are unlabeled and uncertified. Do you see people becoming more interested in buying flowers that are grown according to certifiable eco-friendly, sustainable methods, or will the desire for cheap flowers make it difficult for that niche market to expand?

I went down to Ecuador expecting to be appalled and horrified, and to come back believing we should all buy only American-grown flowers. And what I found instead was that these farms really do provide decent jobs for people so that they can remain with their families in the countryside, and not have to move into the city where there aren't any jobs anyway, and not have to leave the country.

You know, there's a real human cost to immigration. Basically what people were saying to me was, "Look, Latin Americans are going to grow our flowers. It's just a matter of whether we import the flowers or the people." It's a tricky issue, but where I came down on this in the end was that obviously I like to buy a lot of local flowers, but when I can buy Latin American flowers that come from a good farm that's been certified through some kind of program that gives me a guarantee that they're doing the right thing, I want to support them.

I had Ecuadorian growers say to me, "We're trying to grow organic roses. Do Americans care about this? Do Americans want these kinds of roses?" And I was really touched.

The idea that flowers express for us things we cannot otherwise say seems to have had a big influence on your reasons for writing this book. I especially like this passage after your visit to Aalsmeer, the huge flower auction house in Holland where you watched endless conveyor belts loaded with carts full of flowers snake along the huge floor:

"Every petal and leaf was on display. It made the flowers seem more vulnerable and less like ordinary freight . . . Here were millions of stems representing festivity and well wishes, the possibilities of romance, even of apologies and regrets. What would these flowers be called upon to do when they finally went home with somebody? What mistakes would they have to fix? Who would they have to cheer up or seduce?"

Has the way you feel about cut flowers and also the way you purchase them changed after what you learned?

I'm pickier. I buy more flowers than I ever did, but I have higher standards. Just knowing where something comes from has allowed it to mean a lot more to me, like knowing about wine or even heirloom tomatoes. Fair trade flowers are coming this year. And Veriflor-certified organic flowers are already out in Whole Foods and Central Market. So it's happening, finally. But it does take us demanding it.

I've heard people in the industry say: "We're just trying to produce the flower the consumer wants." And if they don't have any indication that the consumer wants an organic flower, then we're not going to get one. People come up to me and say, "If I read your book am I going to have to never buy flowers again?" I hope the opposite will be true. I hope that you'll be more passionate about them than ever.

Jill Nokes is the author of 'How to Grow Native Plants of Texas and the Southwest.

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