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Flower Confidential

Every Bloom Has Its Own Story

In the fifteenth century during the War of the Roses, the houses of York and Lancaster were symbolized by white and red blooms. In our time, roses and other flowers appear in local flower marts, supermarkets, drugstores, and Costco but we don’t have an inkling of from whence or how they came.

In the world of investigative reporting, the restaurant business has seen modern versions of Upton Sinclair-type observations via Fast Food Nation and Kitchen Confidential. Domestic farms have undergone Michael Pollan’s scrutiny in The Omnivore's Dilemma. Now the flower industry falls under the microscope.

In Flower Confidential, Amy Stewart sets her spotlight on a new facet of yet undisclosed territory: the 40 billion dollar flower business. By her estimates, Americans spend 10 million dollars a day on blooms and yet people seem relatively unaware of where or how their purchases arise. We know that 78 percent of these flowers are imported, but we don’t seem to care.

Stewart begins at the flower’s point of purchase and follows the trail back to the grower.
Her research takes her to numerous climes. In California, she visits an Italian family’s violet farm that has operated near Santa Cruz since the 19th century. She also visits the leading producer of American cut flowers, Sun Valley Floral Farms, located near Arcata. In the Netherlands she not only attends the infamous Dutch Auction where flowers are traded at NASDAQ levels, but she also visits a breeder of roses and gerberas who shows her how the business differs from her visits to American farms. For instance, among Dutch farmers, information is not hoarded, but easily exchanged. For an industry that does not sit still on the weekends, you will see many Polish workers in the fields.

Another travel leg on her quest takes her to Quito, Ecuador where she visits half a dozen farms. In Ecuador, the flower industry is the third largest after oil and bananas. Here she has the opportunity to talk to farmers who lament how their dependence on growing flowers has injured their own ability to grow food for their own people. Cropland originally devoted to growing food is now slated for roses. This venue also provides a platform for discussion of sexual harassment and pesticide issues.

In another section of the book, Stewart tracks the journey of a South American rose through customs in Miami, where 88 percent of American flowers are imported. Here she unveils how flowers are treated once they reach American shores.

Stewart’s real asset is the way she treats her interviewees without judging them. Stewart recounts a meeting with a research manager in Australia who is trying to develop a blue rose, not a stem dyed rose or a rose sprayed with blue paint but a rose that will mimic the ingredient delphinidin which produces blue pigment. She also visits a Dutch firm, Multi-Color, which actively dyes the flowers it buys and sends them back out for sale, pyrotechnics be damned. This is floral territory that can be debated as heatedly as stem cells and yet she unveils it without rancor.

Stewart’s last book was on earthworms and she is a contributor to Organic Gardening. Her interest is genuine, not trendy. Her writing style is easy going and we can imagine that it is the same style that gained her access to various farms across the globe. I would have liked to have seen more about labor practices domestically and internationally, as well as more attention to the technology used to make these enterprises so profitable. Perhaps this is fodder for another book.

The appendix provides great tips on how to keep your blooms in their best health.

Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers by Amy Stewart
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
January 4, 2007
ISBN: 978-1-56512-438-7
Hardcover, $23.95
306 pages