In the 1950s, my father was a test pilot. When I was 2 and he was 33, he set a speed record, fell from the sky, and died. For 30 years, spring and summer, my grandmother put flowers on her youngest son’s grave, great glowing yel-low marigolds and stately white chrysanthemums that she grew for this purpose. Of course, she also had long scented rows of snapdragons, daisies, cosmos, and zinnias, all very practical and necessary for church services, wed-dings, sick folk, sad folk, and home decoration. What was known then in Kansas as a cut-flower garden has gone the way of the family farm. But we still require flowers for our important rituals and everyday life. We still see them as necessary.
Americans buy more flowers than Big Macs -- some four billion every year. Per person, Europeans purchase even more flowers, and worldwide the flower business is worth $40 billion. If your ideas about flowers still hark back to my grandmother’s day -- the rich smell of earth, the loving hands of the gardener -- then Amy Stewart’s Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers will make you rethink that Easter lily or Mother’s Day bouquet.
Stewart begins with the domestication of flowers, from the human breeder laboriously transferring pollen onto a stigma to the lab technician manipulating genes in search of the perfect blue rose. The business of flowers requires flowers that do not act like flowers. We do not want the carnation in our vase to attract pollinators, shed sperm, or reproduce. We want it to pack easily, survive days of transport, stand up straight, and remain neat and tidy. We want gladioli in the middle of winter. We want our irises super-sized. A surprising number of us want new colors, new shapes, something different this year. (One thing that is sometimes lost in engineering flowers is their original smell. On the other hand, scientists are considering new smells for flowers -- chocolate or tangerine.) "It might be that it’s unromantic to call a flower a commodity or a manufactured product," Stewart writes, "but flowers are all of these things at once."
Flower Confidential is structured like a travelogue, and Stewart moves around the world following flowers from seed to florist shop. In Ecuador, she shivers in a cold, wet warehouse as men and women hurriedly strip leaves from thousands of roses before sorting and packing them off to destinations in Europe and America. At some point, the bundles are dipped headfirst in fungicide. The smell is horrible. Most of the world’s cut flowers now come from poor countries in Africa and South and Central America, where workers are easily exploited -- badly paid, sexually harassed, and exposed to dangerous chemicals. And yet, a job on a flower farm allows people like these Ecuadorians to feed their children and stay together rather than emigrate.
As Stewart makes clear, the business of flowers needs more oversight in terms of labor and environmental concerns. Pesticides used on this Ecuadorian farm, for example, might later be disposed of in nearby streams or hazardous dump sites.
On the flip side, Stewart does find signs of progress in Europe, where "green label" certification programs set standards for chemical use and worker rights. Most important, for any real change, consumers themselves must be willing to pay more for the rose that is stamped "organic" or the tulip "fair trade."
Is there any romance left in the genetically designed daisy? Does that sunflower come with too high a social price? Stewart raises some thorny questions, but she doesn’t have definitive answers and she doesn’t tell you what to think. As for herself, she treasures the two dozen enormous, carefully crossbred, certified organic, orange and red bicolor Lipstick roses sent by her husband on Valentine’s Day. "These are sculptures," she writes, "works of art."
Flowers make Stewart happy. Flowers bring her solace and joy, just as they did my Kansas grandmother. It is an age-old -- and still evolving -- relationship.
-- Sharman Apt Russell