Amy Stewart, an AbeBooks customer, talks to us about her love affair with flowers
When you walk into a florist for a bouquet or grab a bunch of carnations in your local supermarket have you ever wondered where those flowers came from? A farm just up the road perhaps? Not likely – they probably traveled thousands of miles before catching your eye. Author Amy Stewart puts the spotlight on the flower business in her new book Flower Confidential, which reveals the truth behind a $40 billion worldwide business.
Do you believe many consumers are remotely aware of the complex process that brings flowers to supermarkets and florists?
I don't think people are aware of how big and complex the flower industry is. I know that I wasn't. I'm on a national book tour right now and I find that people are simply astonished at the level of mechanization, technology, and globalization behind a simple bouquet.
But do you think the average Joe (or Joanna) remotely cares about how flowers arrive in supermarkets and florists?
Yes, people do seem to care. We are increasingly aware of where our food comes from and how it was grown. The same logic can be applied to flowers. And it's not just concern over environmental and labor practices. I think that anytime you know the story behind some ordinary object, it takes on new meaning.
How many air miles could the average flower rack up before reaching your home?
Well, 78% of our flowers (in the US) are imported, and most of those are coming from Colombia and Ecuador. So it wouldn't be unusual for a flower to travel 3000 miles to get to your house.
What happened to local flower growers supplying local stores a few miles away?
Flower farms in the United States find it very difficult to compete against Latin American farms. Roses, carnations, and chrysanthemums coming in from Latin America are so inexpensive. Here in the US, labor costs are higher, energy costs are higher (especially since we don't enjoy the perfect year-round climate that farms on the Equator do), and many farmers are realizing that their land may be worth more as real estate than as farmland. They have to find a niche if they want to survive, because they can't compete on price when it comes to the more "mass market" flowers.
You do see small farms selling flowers at farmers market. I think these small, specialty growers are wonderful - they can supply really fresh, seasonal flowers, interesting and unusual varieties, and very often they are using organic or very environmentally-friendly methods. It's harder for them to sell to florists or grocery stores, but it's not impossible. It just takes a buyer, or a floral department manager, who is willing to be a little more flexible.
In writing the book, what part of the cut flower business surprised you the most?
I was very surprised to realize how durable flowers are. They have to be quite sturdy to make this long journey. Most flowers travel in a box with no water at all for two or three days to get to market. As long as they are refrigerated, they remain quite fresh.
What other global businesses, perhaps coffee, would you compare the flower business to?
Coffee is a good comparison in that it's an agricultural product and an everyday item that we don't necessarily give much thought to. I buy Fair Trade organic coffee at the grocery store, mostly because it's right there in front of me and it's easy to do. But I don't really know much about how or where that coffee was grown. And, as a consumer, if I had to work harder to find Fair Trade coffee - if I had to make a special trip or order it online or something - I probably wouldn't do it.
Flowers are going through a transition right now. This year, for the first time, it's possible to buy flowers that have been grown with environmentally and socially responsible practices and certified through a new eco-label called VeriFlora. Later this year, Fair Trade will roll out a flower program in the US, too. But this is all very new - it was only getting underway when I was writing the book - and consumers are just becoming aware of it.
In 100 years time, how will the flower business be different? And how long could cut flowers survive by then?
Wow! I can hardly imagine how the flower business will change over the next century. I hope that we will continue to grow beautiful, ephemeral, old-fashioned varieties and support local farmers. I hope the industry is incredibly environmentally friendly. And although breeders are working on a 30-day rose, I hope flowers don't last abnormally long. Part of a flower's charm is its fleeting nature.
Why do we remain fascinated by flowers?
Flowers have always been a part of our culture. One theory is that flowers signal the presence of food - if a flower is in bloom, seed or fruit will soon follow. Flowers worked their way into art and literature very early in many cultures, and this is probably also part of what sustains our interest in them. We buy sunflowers because they remind us of Van Gogh. We buy roses as an expression of love because Shakespeare used roses as a metaphor.
When did your love affair with flowers begin?
I'm a gardener, and I've always grown flowers in my own garden and tried to keep a vase full off flowers in the house.
What is your favorite place to buy flowers?
I can't resist wholesale markets like the San Francisco Flower Mart. It's only open to the public during certain hours, but it's well worth the trip. I find all the choices absolutely intoxicating - flowers from all over the world, in every size and shape and color.
What is your favorite flower?
I'm really quite an omnivore when it comes to flowers. I like whatever is in season and fresh and beautiful. Think about tomatoes - a tomato could be your favorite food, but you wouldn't want it in December. You'd want it in September, when it's ripe and perfect. So I might love lilacs in the spring, but in the summer I want dahlias and sunflowers.
What books about flowers, or people involved with flowers, would you recommend?
When I was working on Flower Confidential, I really loved The Diary of Michael Floy Jr, a diary of a New York florist written from 1833-1837. The book was published by Yale University Press in 1941. A man named S.S. Skidelsky wrote a wonderful account of life as a traveling flower salesman in 1916. And a man named Charles Bernard wrote a book called My Ten-Rod Farm. It was a fictional memoir by a widow who sold flowers to make a living. He originally published it under the main character's name, Maria Gilman, in 1869, but his own name appeared on the edition I bought from 1900. It's funny - I read an article about a flower shop on the East Coast (of the US) that was founded over a century ago by a Charles Barnard, but when I called the shop to tell them about this book, they weren't all that interested in even finding out if the book could have been written by their grandfather. It's a bit of flower history that I'll keep on my shelf.
[Find copies of Flower Confidential]