A small -- but beautiful -- part of that picture is the promotion of local flower growers and sellers (like Carling Elder of Local Color Flowers in Baltimore, shown in the picture here). Making gifts of flowers is a romantic tradition that many people will enjoy next month, on Valentine’s Day.
But flowers are not just decorative. They are also a more than $40 billion dollar a year industry. Americans consume more cut flowers every year than Big Macs, according to Amy Stewart, author of a book called “Flower Confidential.”
Back in the 1960s, roses sold in the U.S. were mostly grown here. But today, 93 percent of roses sold here are flown in from overseas – with the vast majority from Colombia and Ecuador. American-owned companies were attracted to these countries in the 1960s through 1980s by their cheap land and low energy prices. In 1991, Congress passed a trade preference law to boost the flower industries in these countries, according to Stewart’s book.
“About 80 percent of the flowers we buy in the US are imported,” Stewart said. “And mostly they come from Latin America. In the case of certain flowers, like carnations, it’s actually closer to 99 percent.”
Many of the roses you buy in the supermarket today are genetically engineered in laboratories so that they have a long shelf life, but are lacking in the smell of a rose (although companies sometimes add perfume later), Stewart writes. Supermarket roses are bred in test tubes, produced in low-wage, industrial-scale farms, then doused with pesticides.
Burning fuel to fly cut flowers thousands of miles contributes to greenhouse gas pollution, according to Stewart’s book. And to make it through customs, most flowers are sprayed with chemicals to kill fungus and insects that might otherwise become invasive species in the U.S.
“There have been anecdotal complaints from florists about residue of pesticides and fungicides and other preservatives on their hands, after handling flowers all day every day,” Stewart said. “So people in the floral industry should be wearing gloves, and should be raising questions about the materials that they are handling.“
There are, however, alternatives to the industrial rose. And you can find these other options in a small but growing number of stores that sell only flowers that are grown locally. The local flower movement is natural outgrowth of the local food movement, and the preference of environmentally-conscious consumers to buy from local farms.
This new direction in florists can be found (among other locations) at Local Color Flowers, at 3100 Brentwood Avenue in Baltimore. Carling Elder, the lead floral designer, led a tour of a flower cooler with shelves brimming with blossoms.
“We’ve got snap dragons, magnolias, paper whites,” Elder said. “And we have this really cool, twisty, craggy branch that’s called ‘Harry Lauter’s Walking stick.’ These are some of the things I have to work with this week.”
Along the walls of this former car repair shop south of Baltimore’s Waverly Market are shelves full of mason jars and other old containers the florists polish up and recycle as their vases.
Instead of using exotic ferns as greenery around bouquets, they use more visually interesting local plants – such as dried wheat stalks and herbs.
“You get such amazing scent, because these flowers all have beautiful scents, and we are using herbs as well a lot of the time,” Elder said. “So you might get rosemary or mint in your bouquet, which is going to smell wonderful.”
Across the Chesapeake region, locally-grown flowers can be found at many farmers markets. For a listing of Virginia’s local flower sellers, visit this Virginia Department of Agriculture website (link). The Maryland Department of Agriculture has a “find me local” listing of flower growers that you can access here (link). In Pennsylvania, locally-grown flowers can be purchased at the Greystone Flower Farm in New Oxford (east of Gettysburg), Hendricks Flowers in Lilitz (north of Lancaster), among other locations.
Tobie Whitman sells locally-grown flowers in Washington D.C. from a website, littleacreflowers.com. She argues that buying local helps support open spaces and local farms instead of suburban sprawl.
“Through buying local flowers, you are part of supporting rural livelihoods, decent wage jobs in the farming sector, open spaces, and farming lands,” Whitman said. “It’s very much a similar vision of the local food movement.”
On Valentine’s Day, nothing could be more heartfelt than thinking about what you are buying. Show some love for your local flower growers, farmers, and entrepreneurs.