Author unearths the dirt behind cut flowersSpotted Frog hosts writer of "Flower Confidential" this Wednesday
Amy Stewart noticed something curious about the flowers that come from florists.
Compared to the patch of delphiniums she tended in her garden, the deep purple stalks for sale at the local farmer’s market appeared to have a supernatural, unattainable beauty a feat of perfection even the greenest of human thumbs would find impossible.
She paid a visit to a flower farm near her home in Eureka, Calif. and discovered that most flowers were grown in a very high-tech setting — in water-filled crates without dirt, drinking nutrients from plastic tubes and with very little interference from any thumbs at all.
"A lot of flowers aren’t really planted in soil at all, they’re usually planted in some sort of sterile medium like chopped coconut fiber with little tubes snaking through," Stewart says. "It’s a very smart way to grow. It cuts down on disease possibilities and it makes it easy to control a crop."
The interest soon became more than a personal quest, however. It became the focus of her new novel, "Flower Confidential: the Good, the Bad and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers."
"Once I realized that flowers are in some ways a manufactured product, I became interested in going around the world and seeing more about it," Stewart says.
Her investigation into the cut flowers industry covered Latin America’s dominance over the U.S. market (where she says 78 percent of all flowers purchased by U.S. customers come from) to Dutch control of the price of half the world’s bouquets.
Stewart is currently in the midst of a two-month book tour from New York to Seattle. Her next stop is Park City’s Spotted Frog Bookstore this Wednesday.
"It’s a book in which I am telling stories," she says of "Flower Confidential." "I wanted it to read like a novel and be interesting to someone who isn’t necessarily interested in the cut flower business."
For her book, Stewart needed to leave safe confines of supermarkets. She found that out when she wanted to write a chapter about mass-market retailers, but stores like Whole Foods and Costco and Dole (who has been buying flower farms in Columbia) refused to comment.
"A lot of companies doing good, interesting things with flowers turned me down," she recalls. "In many cases, I had to get really creative."
Stewart was particularly interested in Cosco’s cut flower program, since she would often find exotic and typically expensive bouquets stamped at a price below $10. To find out how, she decided instead to ask the supplier.
As it turned out, Stewart found that Costco contracts vendors to compose their flower department packages, giving them only one guideline: the price point.
"Vendors put whatever flowers they want in there," she explained. "And what happens is, you get these really unusual flowers showing up."
As an example, Stewart gives her local Costco store which manages to offer very high-end French Tulips, simply because a local farm has a few extra. The low price consequently often attracts florists who frequently find Costco’s price to be a better deal than the price their supplier is offering.
At a trade show in Ecuador, flower experts appeared to be quite the opposite of the tight-lipped American superstores, however. Flower vendors chased after her down the aisles there, she claims, begging for an interview.
"They really wanted to get the word out about what’s going on in Latin America’s [flower industry,]" she says. "They wanted to make it clear that there were two sides to this story."
On one hand, the farmers conceded that some companies used harmful chemicals. Since imported flowers from South and Central America can’t show any signs of bugs or fungus when they arrive at Miami International Airport, Stewart found that many farm workers dunk their crops blossom-first into a barrel of fungicide before shipment. She also noted those chemicals seeped into streams and aquifers threatening water resources.
On the other hand, the Ecuador farmers told Stewart that there were also a lot of farmers who had ethical and ecological standards and they wondered if the United States cared about those things.
"They would say to me, ‘do you think that Americans would want to buy these flowers? Do Americans care about these issues? They were asking me, which just amazed me," she remembers.
While the farmers were unsure about Americans, they had begun to practice fair-trade and organic production, because of the European market.
Stewart says, not only does the European market care about the process, but they also purchase more flowers. While she quotes that per-capita spending on cut flowers in the U.S. is about $25, the Swiss have the highest per capita consumption at over $100 per person. It’s part of their lifestyle, she says, and it’s at least part of the reason the Dutch continue to be the center of the flower industry.
Since the "tulip mania" of the 1600s (where one bulb was worth the cost of a house, until the market crashed), half the globe’s flowers make their stop in Amsterdam to be priced before being shipped to retailers, she reports.
The country has also managed to remain at the forefront of the flower business, creating new technologies for growers and tinkering with genetics to create new varieties.
One group of scientists have spent the better part of two decades attempting the blue rose, she says, isolating a gene from a petunia and figuring out how to implant the gene into a rose.
"It turns out to be more complicated than you might think it has a lot to do with pH levels and the kind of metal ions that are stored within the cells of the plant," she says. "They’re definitely on a quest and they’re still working on it."
But in the meantime, the same scientists did manage to create purple carnations, she says.
Despite the mechanics, the competition and the hazards that Stewart unearthed in her research for "Flower Confidential," her appreciation for flowers has seemed only to flourish.
"I think I’m really going to miss being around the floral industry now that the book is done I can’t stay away," Stewart laments. "As I tour the country, I find myself wandering into shops and wholesale markets I think there’s something magical and hard to put your finger on about flowers. There’s something so overwhelming and also so uplifting."
Amy Stewart, a garden columnist since 1995, has written for The New York Times, Organic Digest, the San Francisco Chronicle, among others. The Spotted Frog Bookstore, located at 1635 West Redstone Center Drive, will host Stewart on Wednesday, Feb. 28 at 7 p.m. To contact the bookstore for more information, call 575-2665.
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