Flower Confidential

“Flowers are like nothing else we buy. They don’t play by the same rules,” writes Amy Stewart in her latest book. They are ubiquitous and essentially free; we’ve only to stop by the side of the road and pluck a few. Yet Americans buy more flowers than Big Macs. Every year, $40 billion is spent worldwide on mostly inedible, pesticide-laden, soon-to-droop-and-die flowers.

“Why?” Stewart asks. This question takes her all over the world, from farms in Ecuador to the flower market in the Netherlands to the Miami airport, the main entry point for flowers shipped to the United States. The U.S. imports over three-fourths of its flowers and, according to Stewart, a bouquet bought in a supermarket — often comprising flowers from far-flung places such as Bogotá, Kenya, and Amsterdam — is very likely better traveled than the person purchasing it.

Naturally, the flower industry is rife with issues: exploitation of workers, environmental degradation, and the constant threat of economic insecurity. Migrant workers are paid next to nothing and forced to handle hazardous chemicals; the U.S. government threatens to impose tariffs on Ecuador’s flowers unless Ecuador buys American milk and corn. Stewart dutifully covers the dark side, but her slightly awkward social commentary never quite brings these blood-and-roses stories to life, and she never digs deep enough on issues that warrant more than a topical investigation.

Nonetheless, the book succeeds in offering richly detailed information about the genetic engineering and breeding of flowers, and the growing organic and fair-trade movements around the world. Stewart also provides interesting historical notes, including a look at how the Romans in the first century AD had a highly developed flower trade, manipulating flowers to bloom out of season using steam or hot water in some of the earliest greenhouses.

Flowers have cornered the market on expressing sentiment of all kinds, and that’s part of the reason Americans buy 4 billion of them every year. As flower farmer Don Garibaldi tells Stewart, “Whiskey — that’s fine. Candies are all right. But flowers? That’s something different, I gotta tell you.”

Erin C. Connor, a former Orion intern, works in publishing and is writing a novella.