This Valentine’s Day, in a yearly gesture of love and adoration, hundreds of millions of roses will be bought, bundled and bestowed upon loved ones. Receiving flowers in the middle of winter is enough to melt the coldest of hearts, but stop for one second to think about this impulse and the bloom begins to quickly fade.
Where do these roses come from in the heart of winter? What does it take for them to get here – especially in such quantities? It’s questions like these that inspired Debra Prinzing, a Seattle-based garden writer, to start SlowFlowers.com, which she describes as the “conscious choice for buying and sending flowers.”
Cut flower sales make up a $7-$8 billion business in the United States every year. But of the 224 million roses sold in 2012, Prinzing says only two per cent were American-grown. The situation is much the same in Canada, according to Flowers Canada Growers, Inc. Most cut flowers in Canada come from foreign countries, with minor exceptions (tulips and gerberas, for example).
“It’s so different from food,” Prinzing says. “We’re inundated with these little stickers on every piece of fruit we purchase… You don’t have that kind of labeling on most flowers, so there is just this big black hole of knowledge.”
SlowFlowers.com is Prinzing’s effort to counteract that by connecting American consumers with sources of local flowers with the click of the mouse. Drawing a parallel to the local food movement, Prinzing explains that the desire for local flowers has been growing in recent years.
“People are proud of the fact that they’re supporting farmers, and keeping jobs close to home, and preserving farmland, and stimulating economic development in rural areas – that’s just in the zeitgeist right now in all of North America,” Prinzing says.
Beyond the economic benefits of buying close to home, there are human rights and environmental concerns with flower farms in places like Colombia and Ecuador, where many of Canada’s flowers originate.
“The thing with flowers is that, because they are not food, the standards for chemical use on them is much different, so they are putting a lot of nasty stuff, which the florist is handling, and you are handling, and it’s really affecting the workers,” says Sarah Nixon, a Toronto-based flower farmer and designer, and owner of My Luscious Backyard.
Steps are being made to improve the conditions in some Central and South American flower farms. Third-party certification boards such as Veriflora and Rainforest Alliance are examples of efforts that aim to assure consumers that they are getting the highest quality products, produced with rigorous environmental accountability, while at the same time addressing the health and well-being of workers.
Nixon supports these as a move in the right direction. “Tell your florist that you really want local flowers, or at least sustainably-grown flowers from one of these certification bodies,” she says. “If florists think that locally-grown or sustainably-grown flowers are what people are interested in, then they’ll get them in.”
Prinzing also believes that any effort towards sustainability is laudable, but she encourages consumers to visit the websites of those labels to really investigate what they do. For her, nothing is ‘slower’ or more sustainable than domestic flowers and she is encouraged by the traction the idea seems to be garnering.
“The whole idea of local and farm-grown is very fashionable right now,” she says. “When there’s a bunch of field-grown flowers being held in a photo on the cover of Martha Stewart Weddings, I feel like the flower farmer has arrived.”
While some florists have grown their own flowers for years, demand for local has been growing and has fuelled what could be considered a nascent local flower movement.
“The ‘farmer-florist’ has become a thing,” says Nixon, who grows flowers in her own urban lot as well as in city gardens around Toronto. “It used to be, decades ago, that florists grew their own flowers – now it’s got a name.”
Nixon explains that as flower production became outsourced to other countries, changes arose in the types of flowers that became readily available in North America. Growers began focusing on varieties that were hybridized to be able to last in shipping. The result was flowers with little or no scent and a selection of only a few varieties that are suitable for transport.
“With the local flower movement, we’re able to grow flowers that don’t travel well, and we’re also able to find varieties that have the gorgeous scents, which is really a lost and very missed element of flowers,” she says. She cites foxgloves, English-style garden roses, zinnias, sweet peas and Chinese forget-me-nots as examples of some of the local flowers she uses for her clients.
Five ways to avoid giving roses this Valentine’s Day
“If you really want to stay local, roses are only an option in February if you live in Santa Barbara, basically,” says Debra Prinzing. Here are a few alternatives:
- Give Canadian greenhouse-grown flowering potted plants, like orchids
- Succulents and air plants are fantastic gifts because they last a long time and need little care
- Focus on spring bulbs like tulips, daffodils and narcissus
- Promise a summer’s worth of flowers with a gift certificate or a share in a local flower CSA
- Buy a beautiful vase and wrap it up with a packet of flower seeds
In Nova Scotia, horticulturalist Svenja Dee – the owner of Tulipwood Inc. in Lunenburg – sells her local bouquets and arrangements at farmers’ markets on the South Shore and also does floral designs for dozens of weddings every year. She said the majority of her bridal clients specifically ask for locally-sourced materials.
“I have a lot of brides who really want to have sustainable flowers and have a green wedding that supports local business,” she says. “A lot of people really just want local because they know about how flowers come from South America and Africa, and they don’t want it. So I think there is a movement, if you want to call it that.”
Dee’s focus goes beyond locally-grown flowers to include items she forages from nearby beaches and forests. “I like to use what’s around here, even making a wreath out of blueberry branches,” she says. “There’s a lot out there, it’s just a matter of how you put them together. I like to go to the beach and in the woods and use materials that anyone can gather. I want to be an inspiration, so people look more at what surrounds them.”
That philosophy hits home for Prinzing, whose book, The 50 Mile Bouquet, spotlights the major transformation in how cut flowers are grown, designed and consumed. “We’ve been spoonfed this idea that loves equals a dozen red roses,” she says. “It’s up to us to be creative and work around that.”