With Valentine’s Day looming, our digital editor Kathleen Yale called up Amy Stewart, author of Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful, to talk about the ins and outs of the floral industry, changing consumer aesthetics, the pursuit of blue roses, and the best bouquet for your worst enemy.
Kathleen Yale: First things first: What is the best flower?
Amy Stewart: I think the best flower is a lily. You can pick a lily when it is closed, put it in a vase, and watch it open over a week or longer. It continues its journey and changes before your eyes.
KY: I think I know the answer to this, but what is the bestselling flower in America?
AS: Almost certainly roses. But the thing about flowers that sell is that it’s really about durability—what will make it to market. Of course, we buy more of the things that are offered for sale, right? What becomes popular gets there from a combination of what people are willing to buy and what is feasible to sell. Carnations, for example, sell. They are extremely durable, easy to ship, and they last a very long time. But carnations are probably no one’s favorite flower. We end up buying them not because we demand them so much as because they work for the floral industry.
KY: Where are most cut flowers grown?
AS: Columbia, Ecuador, the Netherlands. Kenya and Ethiopia, too. Domestically, California is a huge producer.
KY: Getting back to roses for minute, what is the most elusive color for a rose?
AS: Definitely blue. There is no gene for making blue pigment anywhere in the rose family. So, the only way to get a blue rose or anything close to it is to genetically modify one by inserting a blue gene from say, a petunia, or some other flower that is good at making blue. And there are companies working on that. The question is: Does anyone even want a blue rose? Do we really need one?
KY: How many roses are sold in the U.S. over Valentine’s Day?
AS: Something like 250 million. Flower sales from this holiday alone typically account for about 30 percent of a shop’s annual transactions. Mother’s Day comes in at a close second.
KY: You’re having a dinner party. What flower do you invite?
AS: Maybe a dahlia. They’re just so glamorous and interesting.
There really aren’t a lot of other things besides flowers that we use to say all the most important things in our lives.
KY: What is the worst flower from an environmental standpoint?
AS: I’m not aware of the potential differences in, say, water or pesticide or fungicide use based on specific crops. There may be a particular flower that is especially bad, but I don’t know of it. I will say that wherever you grow flowers—whether on a little farm down the street or halfway around the world—the amount of chemicals used will vary based on local laws and individual farming practices. When imported flowers enter the country, they are subject to ag inspection, but they aren’t tested for pesticide residue the way imported food is, so there’s really no limit to the level of chemical residue that may be left on the surface. And in fact, there is an incentive to douse them with pesticides and fungicides so the flowers don’t develop infestations on the way and cause the shipment to be thrown out upon arrival.
That said, I think technology in the flower industry is really making gains to solve some of its environmental problems. For instance, if you’re growing flowers hydroponically in a greenhouse, you can recapture and reuse that water. The Dutch are really leading the way with some of these innovations. In that way, I do think that the floral industry is a space that provides some hope for the rest of agriculture as well—how to do things better.
And in terms of smaller local operations, flowers can make great rotating crops. Planting a few rows of flowers between food crops can give the soil something else to do, help out the pollinators, and actually provide the farmers with some income during the low seasons between food crops. These are all great reasons to buy local flowers and help farmers.
KY: Speaking of pollinators, if you were a bee, where would you want to spend all your time?
AS: Oh, definitely in a wild area, not a cultivated place. A meadow far from humans. Maybe hanging out on some yarrow.
KY: What’s the cruelest flower?
AS: Well, there are plenty of poisonous flowering plants. Jimson weed in the nightshade family has lovely flowers but is very poisonous. The castor bean has strange-looking blooms, probably not for a bouquet, but the seeds contain ricin, one of the most toxic substances on the planet.
KY: Your book Flower Confidential came out more than a decade ago, but I wonder, is there a fact or story that really surprised you during your research, something that has stuck with you?
AS: I think the biggest thing was just realizing how different the flowers we grow in our gardens are from the flowers you buy in a shop. They may be entirely different flowers to begin with; sweet peas, for example are lovely in a garden but are rarely found in a shop because they’re so fragile. But also, plant breeders are working very hard to grow and modify species that work for the floral industry—what can be planted in rows, what can be harvested with machinery, what can lay down in a box to ship, all that. The flowers have to fit the process. But that’s not what we’re after in a garden. They just end up being entirely different products, really. I don’t think I truly understood that at first.
I don’t want to eat a mealy winter tomato. So why don’t we have an aesthetic for flowers that is similar to the way we might eat—more seasonally conscious?
KY: Have you noticed any changes in the industry since your book came out?
AS: One nice thing that has happened since Flower Confidential is that there has been a lot of interest in locally grown, American-grown, flowers and the Slow Flowers movement. This is a movement that’s working on connecting local growers with local buyers and shops, and supporting domestically-grown flowers. The cool thing is it’s not just about the business end; it’s also working on changing consumer aesthetics. Valentine’s Day is coming up, and why are we all asking for roses that bloom in summer? Why don’t we have an aesthetic for flowers that is similar to the way we might eat—more seasonally conscious. I don’t want to eat a mealy winter tomato. We can be eating delicious winter crops, leeks and potatoes! The same can happen for flowers, and there are American farmers shifting toward that. Even if it’s just tulips grown in a greenhouse, at least an early spring crop is closer to the mark in February than a summer flower. Slow Flowers is in part about changing our notion of what is beautiful and desirable to better match up with the seasons.
KY: Okay, but should I feel guilty about buying cut flowers from a shop?
AS: No! Not at all. Listen, it’s like any other kind of little treat for ourselves—dinner out, a massage, a trip to a theater—things we might not need but want to enjoy sometimes. And beyond that, I think floral horticulture is a good source of jobs (and is safer than a lot of other agricultural jobs), and around the world growing and exporting flowers is a source of economic growth. But what we can do as consumers is ask for flowers that are grown sustainably and look for a Fair Trade label, just as we might for other products.
KY: I spent several years working as a floral designer, and one thing that always struck me was how sending and receiving flowers can be such an emotional experience for people.
AS: For sure. There really aren’t a lot of other things besides flowers that we use to say all the most important things in our lives, right? We have flowers for weddings, death, and birth. We use them to celebrate milestones—birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, retirement—to say I love you, or I’m sorry, which can be one of the hardest things to say. We use flowers to mark these most important events, and they work for all of them! They inhabit a really unique place in our culture. And I think it’s just really incredible that you can call a florist across the country, and they will make a specific thing for you, by hand, put it in a car, drive it to your mom, and put it in her hand that same day. It’s an amazing thing.
Amy Stewart is the New York Times bestselling author of Flower Confidential, The Drunken Botanist, Wicked Plants, and several other popular nonfiction titles about the natural world.