In November of 2015, i had the chance to travel with my then-partner to Vietnam. he was speaking at a conference, and we took the opportunity to travel around a bit. both of us being plant and farming nerds, our days revolved around food tours, visits to wholesale food markets, and trying to see as much agriculture as we could. we divided our time between hanoi, dalat and the mekong delta.
in dalat, an inland mountain region, we visited coffee farms, silkworm farms, and to my delight and surprise, rose and gerbera daisy farms. by 2015, about 4 years into my floral design journey (with many trips to nyc’s floral district on 28th street under my belt) i knew that a decent number of imported flowers came from Vietnam. it clicked instantly when i saw the rows upon rows of delicate beautifully low-tech bamboo-supported greenhouses, lit up as we drove into town for the first night: they were growing flowers here, of course. flowers like cool mountain climates and higher altitudes — many are naturally suited to rocky, shallow soil, and they enjoy the intense sunlight they receive. the artificial light they were receiving after sundown wasn’t unusual – many commercial flower operations extend daylight hours for quicker harvests and longer stem lengths.
about 90% of the flowers purchased in the us (at bodegas, supermarkets, and flower shops) are grown abroad: ~78% come from Ecuador, Colombia, and Mexico. the rest hail from Ethiopia, South Africa, Kenya, New Zealand, and the Netherlands. Vietnam’s flower export game is comparatively small, and in fact Vietnamese-grown flowers more routinely make it to china, japan and Taiwan.
what ironic and vexing luck that a holiday to commemorate the death of a 3rd century martyr would, centuries later, become a synonymous with love and flowers. Even more vexing – particularly to local flower farmers and the florists that support them (in the northern hemisphere) – that this holiday fell during such a cold, dark month. It’s not exactly the height of our flower season. But that’s never stopped capitalism! LOL.
So, while it isn’t saint valentine’s fault he was persecuted and then executed for his religious beliefs on February 14, in approx… 300 AD –or, that the holiday later became associated with bird mating season in England, (when sending love notes became a tradition) –it’s still a great time to unpack how flowers have come to transcend all seasons through a globalized flower trade and what that means for the people producing them and the ecosystems these huge operations invade. It’s a great time to consider the competing tensions of sustainability, local and global trade, personal gain and the greater good. All things I think about quite regularly. And there are a lot of tensions, anytime we talk about sustainability.
as noted, roses aren’t a “seasonal flower” in February, at least in New York and much the northern US. They prefer 40-60 degrees, and below 40 would require the constant protection of a greenhouse as well as supplemental heat to grow well. roses enjoy warm, dry climates, and for this reason, domestically grown roses are now mostly in California, where they enjoy long, dry summers (which helps keep diseases at bay).
our ability to source locally grown flowers has shrunk enormously in the last 100 years. Amazingly, I recently learned that Madison, New Jersey was called “the rose city” in the late 19th and early 20th century. Wealthy (white/male) industrialists started large rose growing operations under glass, and not without enormous water and energy costs. As the flower trade boomed, these monied capitalists eventually set their sights on cheaper land and labor abroad, and eventually a once booming regional flower farming trade dried up. One of the very few surviving family operations – Hau Tau and Sons (est. 1902) in fact now grows under glass houses the farm’s forbears purchased from rose farmers shutting down operations.
I don’t want to romanticize the local flower trade – past or present. To me, defining sustainability must include equity, and a valuing of all life. In the early 20th Century, no doubt the many ills of capitalist patriarchy abounded: racism, misogyny, homophobia. This still plays out in all facets of our culture, including the floral trade, where men (usually white men) tend to own farms and wholesale operations. women (almost entirely women of color) tend to harvest, pack, box, answer the phone, or do the accounting. Local never automatically equals equitable, and that feels important to state. It’s too easy in these greenwashing-heavy days for campaigns for local flowers to ignore issues of equity: indigenous and Black land loss, whiteness in floristry and floral media, etc.
so, when did roses become the flower for valentine’s day? Catherine Ziegler documents in her excellent book Favored Flowers (2007): “as farmers in California and Colorado began to produce abundant quantities of fewer flower species, red roses and carnations emerged as the favored flowers for valentine’s day”. the flower-giving around this holiday really increased in the 1980s and 1990s when cheaper imported flowers began flooding united states markets, “declining prices,” which meant “greater visibility on New York streets.” She explains how roses weren’t always the thing. In fact, she writes, “bunches of fragrant purple violets were common St. valentine’s day gifts to young women well into the 1930s.” Swoon – sign me up!
The question of whether locally grown flowers are more sustainable is not a simple one. You have to first define sustainability. While some experts point to the fact that south american flowers could potentially use less fossil fuel (equatorial mountain climates mean it’s possible to grow flowers without much supplemental heat or light energy), it needs to be said that sustainability is not just about carbon footprint.
There is rampant documented use of harmful synthetic chemical pesticides, “holding solutions” and fertilizers in large floral operations and this poses serious risk to the workers (who are typically 60% women
EditSign in most countries) as well as the surrounding ecosystem through water pollution. The pesticides the workers are forced to administer (wearing hazmat suits) as part of their job also don’t magically dry up and disintegrate after being sprayed: they stick to the stems and leaves, and the rest can travel hundreds or thousands of miles, polluting the air. You can often see white residue from sprays on flowers purchased on 28th street. As Black farmer/activist/intersectional community strategist Amber Tamm recently pointed out in her article for Farmer’s Footprint, “The People Behind Your Red Roses,” the majority of people producing flowers across the glove are women of color; and, this damning evidence of what is so deeply problematic about blindly purchasing flowers from unregulated farms:
“Women in the industry had more miscarriages than average and that more than 60 percent of all workers suffered headaches, nausea, blurred vision or fatigue.”
not only are racism and environmental degradation underpinning the global flower trade; as in most things, so are patriarchy and misogyny. while widespread sexual abuse on flower farm operations is also well documented, in kenya, colombia and elsewhere. In Colombia, where 1 in every 100 people works in the trade, the work is largely done by women. They work 12–15-hour days, and can be exposed to sexual harassment as well as the toxic health hazards. There is also much documentation of child labor abuse.
For more stats surrounding the environmental, social and economic justice issues surrounding floral industry work, check out the Ethical Unicorn’s blog post on flowers and sustainability here.
To me, sustainability should encompass the surviving and thriving of all plants, animals (including humans) and soil organisms (that are responsible for all life)! in practice in the flower world, It should mean flower workers can work safely, are treated with respect, and paid a wage that reflects the incredible technical skills, knowledge of plants and value that they contribute to a multi-billions dollar industry.
in the last decade, there are efforts to “green” the industry through fair trade certification labels. this has been shown to improve working conditions and to lower waste. But I remain skeptical. The sheer size of the trade, its patriarchal structure (male-owned/women-operated), and its historical preference of profit over people and the planet still make it questionable as to whether these greening initiatives can turn things around.
These days, for valentine’s day alone, about 500 million tons of flowers will be shipped to the us. about 250 million roses will be sold – half of them red. Our California rose growing industry as a whole could not possibly meet this demand.
This is partly why I champion seasonal flowers – flowers that are suited for the climate and time of year. The Hau Tau and sons family farm that I purchase from in New Jersey grows cool-loving flowers like anemones, ranunculus, and hellebore, December through March, in minimally heated greenhouses. These are the flowers I often feature in my Valentine’s bouquets, along with some california-grown eucalyptus and wax flower.
I also favor seasonal/locally-grown because of the relationships I can build, and conversations I can have with the growers. I can visit their farms, see the working conditions for workers, ask about what if any benefits they’re able to provide their employees. I can learn about their growing practices, whether they use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides (organic or no), and I can learn the real challenges they face, as well.
For me, sustainability is also about reducing waste. There is an insane amount of plastic and other non-biodegradable, fossil-fuel derived products used in traditional floral operations that become waste sent to landfills (which are large contributors to methane and CO2 in the atmosphere). Think about 20 million plastic sleeves used to package those 250 million roses – and that’s just roses – and that’s just in the US alone. At Molly Oliver Flowers, we use recycled brown paper to wrap flower bouquets, as well as recycled paper tags, and raffia – all compostable. Composting all of our floral waste is really important to me, and we are lucky to work with some urban farms that will accept the mostly organically-grown flower waste we bring.
it’s interesting – i wasn’t so hot on the holiday – or the flower of choice, the rose – for most of my life. And these many depressing reasons weren’t why. i imagine lots of you feel cynical about this holiday, as i did for most of my life… it’s commercialized, heteronormative, and can feel super exclusive, and even painful, to people mid-break up or seeking a partner. i never would have through growing up that centering so much attention on it would become unavoidable as it is to me now, as a farmer/florist.
becoming a florist has changed that. now and especially this year, i have deep appreciation for a holiday centered on love. i just want to make sure we’re inclusive about what love we uplift and celebrate, and include self-love as perhaps the most critical of all. I also hope that we can learn to lean on seasonal flowers, subscriptions to seasonal flowers, or potted plants as more sustainable alternatives.
i also have a newfound appreciation for the rose, of late. for the first 8-9 years of my florist life, i would purchase locally-grown roses from a farmer who i would call “the last living rose grower on the eastern seaboard,” and it was true. most rose-growing operations in the northeast have shut down, unable to compete with more abundantly, more cheaply grown roses in Ecuador or Colombia.
In recent years, some domestic growers have been reviving gorgeous heirloom garden rose varieties. there is so much more i could touch on about roses here — how as they were hybridized and bred for long distance shipment — in other words, bred for durability and length — not aroma. they lost their thorns, but also their romance, in my opinion. much is lost when we commercialize, and it’s been a magical mystery tour to discover true garden roses.
since i launched molly oliver flowers, i’ve been fairly unreliable when it comes to galentine’s / valentine’s day. for retail florists with brick-and-mortar studios, it’s not optional to sit this one out. but as a studio florist, i could bow out and often did due to February events.
big life shifts in 2019 and then a worldwide pandemic in 2020, brought major changes to my life and business’s course. selling direct to consumers for every day events – birthdays, anniversaries, and i love you’s – became my focus. in Covid, direct retail sales have been a life saver. when a full calendar (~45 events) was wiped clean by April last year, i pivoted to offering subscriptions of locally-grown flowers and it was a complete joy.
i think a lot florists have a love/hate relationship with valentine’s day. it is a mad, mad dash. extra-long hours on your feet, weeks of preparation, 3-4 days on your feet and non-stop delivering, if you’re lucky.
but as i’ve been preparing these past couple of weeks, watching orders come in, i’ve once again been reminded how sweet it is to read small notes. such as one from a mother to a daughter —”always remember you are so loved xx”; or from one friend to another with a little sourdough/pandemic humor — “be my galentine! xo, the Thelma to your bread rescue Louise;” or from someone to themselves!!: “happy valentine’s day to me!” it’s insanely touching, and makes all the long days 100% worthwhile.
flowers are avatars for love. they communicate something profound, purely on their own – cute message or no. the tradition of giving flowers dates back centuries, evidence found in lore from ancient Egypt, Greek mythology, the middle ages. it’s been a privilege to get to be a messenger of love of sorts in the year 2021.
it’s also been awesome to see how many florist peers are celebrating seasonal flowers this year and in many cases, eschewing roses for other unique flowers – often whatever is grown locally in their region.
I guess this ramble/research paper I didn’t quite plan on writing was a longwinded way of communicating that the issues of sustainability and equity are endlessly intertwined and incredibly complex. Local-everything won’t fix the climate change crisis, when it was right in our local communities that waste and exploitation began. We need to examine ourselves, our institutional structures, and power, gender, and racial dynamics. Who is farming? And who owns the farm and who harvests the flower and should either role be valued over the other? Who sets floral trends? Who is invited to be the face of floristry in Vogue magazine? Obviously 2020 was a long overdue watershed moment, and I began seeing change on white platforms with large followings almost immediately. That gives me hope.
As a white florist with considerable privilege, I feel a responsibility to do what I can to advocate for equity in local spaces, to support my local farms and also hold them accountable, to adopt practices in my business that reduce waste and that contribute to re-growing an equitable local flower industry, and to vote with my business credit card.
I really love amber tamm’s call for all florists (who are mostly white in the us and uk) – especially those purchasing flowers grown abroad – to use the power, privilege and leverage they have to organize themselves, to understand the source of their flowers and who is producing them, and to advocate for healthier growing practices and equity in their compensation for the highly skilled and valuable labor they share with the world in order to produce the living beauty we can all find healing and joy and meaning in.
and, here in the us, we should continually be asking “who is growing the flowers” – and as I’ve written about before, in blog posts and on instagram, commit to reparations in whatever ways we can as individuals and businesses to diversify the face of flower farming (and farming and land ownership in general).
If you got this far, thank you for reading. Drop any questions in the comment section, and thank you for your support this Valentine’s day!