Sunday, October 13, 2013

Book Review - Flower Confidential

Where have our desires led us? Are we, in fact, gilding the lily?
~Amy Stewart
We want a cut flower to be perfect, unique, extraordinary, fragrant, long lasting and inexpensive don’t we? But all those demands are the reason most store bought cut flowers have no fragrance. In the breeding efforts to get sturdiness suitable for freight handling and a long vase life, flowers fragrance and delicacy has been lost.

Amy Stewart's book, Flower Confidential is a fascinating look into the very real, at times ugly industry that provides us with the beauty of cut flowers for our homes. Travelling with the cut flower from greenhouse to retailer, it is an exposé of the sordid realities of the industry.  In it she tells us how flowers are being created in laboratories, bred in test tubes, grown in factories, machine harvested and packed, auctioned, sold and transported by air across oceans and continents. Stewart also details histories of growers, both domestic and international, their relationships to each other, histories of hybridizing, plant profiles and genetic plant facts, the Dutch Auction and much more.

Sadly for us, 80% of all cut flowers purchased in the USA are imported, grown by many countries using chemicals banned for use in the US and heavy chemical use of fungicide dips after the flowers have been harvested but before they get packed for shipment. Growers are highly motivated to keep shipments from being rejected due to pests or disease so they use what ever chemical it takes to ship a ‘clean’ product. Since this is not an edible product, little attention is paid from this end of the line as to what chemicals are being used. Stewart notes that California grown flowers do have less chemical residue than those grown in Latin American countries.

Next to the hazardous chemical issue is the fact that many countries are growing and shipping flowers that are handled by workers not paid by fair wage practices nor are they properly protected from the daily chemical use. Stewart brings light to the fact that many of the policies are exploitive, using child labor and women report rampant sexual harassment.

Stewart goes on to outline a little known dilemma of whose flowers to buy. Ecuadorian roses are priced low that keeps buyers going back to Ecuador. Buying from them supports local jobs, keeping families together but comes with low wages. Ecuador’s flower industry provides jobs for both men and women which empowers women in an abusive industry but also uses child labor. Without the flower industry many Ecuadorians, Kenyans, and those from many other nations across the equator would not have much hope of making an independent, steady living.

On the other hand American grown roses encourages migrant labor which separates the Mexican worker from family who are left behind in Mexico and may contribute to our illegal border crossing problem. All this because we want low prices for cut flowers.

Much of the coffee, chocolate, and hand goods industries have already implemented fair trade certification programs as an industry standard. What about the cut flower industry? Stewart's research shows that while the US has been slow to jump on the bandwagon, much of Europe has already implemented certifiable standards for social and environmental responsibly grown flowers. In the US, Veriflora and a few others are making efforts to make that a standard here. She mentions Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s as two outlets that have made the commitment to buy flowers certified by green labeling programs. A green label certification may include:

  • Least toxic chemicals chosen for use
  • Less overall chemicals use
  • Healthier work environment for workers
  • Less crowded growing conditions for the plants whereby improving the plants overall strength, which helps the plant to resist diseases and pests on it’s own
  • Better working conditions and wages for the workers
  • In some cases higher price to the consumer
Sad? A little depressing? Certainly not visions of Miss Marple lovingly tending and cutting roses from her bushes to sell from a little cart in front of her cottage. Today’s cut flowers are a commodity market in which they are forced into unnatural growing conditions and packed and shipped for market quickly so you can pay as little as possible.

Overall a very informative book, difficult to put down. I must say I am a tad disillusioned after reading it but definitely better informed and appreciative of knowing more of the reality of what goes into the cut flowers I buy. I will think twice now about chemical residues as I handle store bought cut flowers, knowing that they have likely been chemically sprayed and dipped several times over their growing life and on the production line. And if they are from Peru, they have been fumigated at the Miami Int'l Airport before they will be allowed in. Since this is a blog for organic gardening, as a side note I'll include another unsettling fact Stewart uncovered. According to Miami Int'l Airport's cargo division's marketing specialist, "asparagus from Peru is fumigated as a matter of course", yep even if it was grown for the organic market. By the time it reaches your organic store and is labeled as organic, it's been fumigated in Miami if it comes from Peru.

Armed with this new information, the next time I went to Trader Joe’s I looked at their cut flowers. Sure enough, the protective, plastic wrap is stamped not only with the Trader Joe’s logo but also Veriflora

and Rainforest Alliance certifications.
Boy, I sure did feel better about buying and handling (without gloves) these lovely lime green chrysanthemums.
There is so much more to her book than what I've mentioned here.
Do you buy flowers from your local grocer or florist? If so I hope you find this review informative and I highly recommend reading Flower Confidential. Please note, this book may be titled Gilding the Lily for the European market.

In Bloom in My Garden Today: Agastache foeniculum (anise hyssop), Alyssum, Begonia ‘bonfire’, Canna, Caryopteris ‘longwood blue’ (bluebeard), Cimicifuga simplex ‘brunette’, Coreopsis ‘moonbeam’, crocus, Cyclamen hederifolium), Shasta Daisy(white double) Daphne caucasica ‘Eternal Fragrance’, Echinacea purpurea magnus, Eupatorium rugosum ‘chocolate’ (joe pye weed), Fuchsia, Gaillardia (blanket flower), Gladiolus callianthus (formerly Acidanthera), Hosta, Kirengeshoma palmata, Kniphofia ‘echo mango’Lavender, Nepeta ‘six hills giant’ (catmint), Phygelius ‘new sensation’ (cape fushia), Rhododendron, Rose, Salvia

Author’s photos