Gifts of the heart seem to be most successful when they appeal to the finer senses. Intoxicating wines to blur the inevitable sharp edges of life, endorphin-inducing chocolates that elevate mood, scintillating and precious metals and jewels to affirm esteem, and affection top the list. Sweetly scented flowers are also an agreeable love offering. On the eve (give or take a few days) of the festival of love known as Valentine’s Day, it may be instructive to review the age-old tradition of presenting a loved one with flowers. Whether it is a single, perfect rose, an orchid corsage, or a show-stopping bouquet of brilliant and fragrant lilies, there is a largely unseen business producing millions of dollars of income for owners of a very specialized and increasingly offshore industry.
The cut flowers at the Farmers Market and to some extent in other floral outlets in the area are unique in being grown more or less in the area and put dollars into the pockets of resident workers and growers. Those on display at most supermarkets and chain florists are, however, among the most traveled commodities. Just like grapes in January and pineapples any time of the year, the majority of cut flowers are grown thousands of miles away.
Even with the seemingly prodigious cost of transporting this ephemeral product by air from the Netherlands, South America, Asia, or even Kenya, the cut flower industry thrives. About 70 percent of the imported cut flowers in the U.S. are now coming from Colombia alone. They are grown in flimsy greenhouses, picked, packed, and shipped along a chain of refrigerated warehouses, trucks, and airplanes (kept at 34 degrees, no more, no less) to arrive in a state of arrested animation at their destinations within 48 hours on average. Revived in hotel lobbies, offices, and hospital rooms, these precious posies fulfill their long-awaited destiny.
Added to the insult of the carbon cost this long trail of transport entails is the loss of acreage to natural habitats covered over with plastic to grow flowers or land that could be feeding surrounding populations. Depletion of aquifers for intensive, year-round irrigation is also taking its toll. According to one source, the amount of water to produce just one long-stemmed rose is more than three gallons. The intensive growing methods and monocultures—large areas devoted to one type of flower—have, of course, led to the extensive use (and abuse) of chemical fungicides and pesticides, as well. This is just one more insult to the environment, but one that also affects those who work the flower farms.
One of the few redeeming aspects of this industry, at least in Colombia, is the increase in jobs it has given to farm workers who were previously locked into the very dangerous and exploitative production of opium. Abusive employment practices still exist; workers—the majority of whom are women, and of them, the majority single mothers—are working very long hours with no benefits. Children as young as 9 years old are being pressed into service. Thankfully, there are industry-initiated reforms that are slowly educating and certifying growers that comply with sustainable water-use guidelines. Internationally recognized safety guidelines for chemical application are also being implemented, but in many places, this sort of regulation is entirely self-imposed. There are several independent flower certification programs. Fair Trade flowers, VeriFlora, and the Rainforest Alliance are recruiting growers in Colombia. Hopefully other grassroots groups will work toward protecting natural resources and advocating for worker health and well-being.
Give flowers, not only for Valentine’s Day, but any time emotions need expression, and, as with everything green, grow or buy them locally. Start the “slow flower” movement one bouquet at a time.