Floriculture, a $40 billion global business, is engaged in the struggle to transform something natural and unspoiled into a mass produced, transportable product, says Amy Stewart, bestselling author of Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers. This transformation relies on an extensive network of breeders, field workers, auction houses, sales representatives, shippers, and florists to offer consumers a variety of choices well beyond those found in backyard gardens. Flower growers don't wait for nature to introduce the genetic mutation that will make them millionaires; in the lab, they painstakingly cross-pollinate promising varieties to develop new plants with marketable characteristics, creating hundreds of new varieties every year. Breeders might extract a color-producing substance from a petunia, feed it to bacteria, and inject those bacteria into a rose to produce an unusual and eye-catching hue. Consumers can purchase gerberas with blooms as wide as salad plates and roses with yard-long stems perfectly suited for Valentine's Day boxes.
In a drive to satisfy not only the eye but the nose, breeders are also working to reintroduce a lost quality in the production of many cut flowers: scent. Many commercially sold flowers emit no fragrance. Scent uses up a great deal of a flower's resources, Stewart explains. If you want a rose that smells like a rose, it will die within a few days. Today's flowers might be cut on Monday, travel by plane and truck on Tuesday and Wednesday, arrive at the florist's on Thursday, and be purchased on Friday by someone who wants them to look fabulous in a vase for a week. These blooms can't afford to smell as nice as they look.
The effort to re-engineer scent might expand product development in directions few consumers imagine. Stewart predicts that flowers could be engineered to release scent in the evening, when people come home from work . . . or perhaps a new scent could be introduced all together. Just imagine: a tulip that smells like jasmine . . . a chocolate-scented rose . . . Is it only a matter of time before a lily is bred to smell like Calvin Klein cologne?
In America, nearly 80% of cut flowers are imported. These blossoms come from mountainous regions along the equator, mostly from Ecuador and Columbia. Kenya keeps Europe in bloom; Singapore cultivates the world's orchids.
In the uplands of these countries, conditions are perfect for growing flowers. The days are always 12 hours long; sunlight is intense, and nights are cool.
Just as important, however, are the social conditions found in these paradises, where labor is cheap, plentiful and nonunionized. When workers are told to dunk roses into an anti-fungicide, they don't ask whether that concoction might give them cancer or pollute their groundwater. And no one tells them that it is banned in the countries where their flowers are sold, writes Stewart.
Their governments also look the other way. When flower growers move into developing countries, they take over scarce resources, like water and arable farmland, leaving less for native agriculture or industries, contends Stewart. Slowly the host economies become dependent on the growers. In Ecuador, flowers are now the third most important product, after oil and bananas.
Fortunately, not all growers abuse their workers or their host country's resources, and flower lovers need not buy the products of those who do. In the West, certification programs have evolved to inform consumers which flowers have been grown under healthful and humane conditions. In America, these blooms bear the VeriFlora seal.
One drawback of growing flowers under optimal physical and social conditions, explains Stewart, is that they must travel vast distances to reach their final purchasers. First they are trucked from their mountain greenhouse to an airport. Next they fly to Amsterdam, San Francisco or Miami for purchase by floral wholesalers. These middlemen then ship the flowers-sometimes across an ocean or a continent-to the retailers who finally sell them to the public. By the time they reach the florist cooler, Stewart observes, flowers . . . may be better traveled than the people who buy them.
This distribution system not only puts an enormous strain on fragile blossoms, some of which spend hours on hot airport tarmacs or travel days without water, but exacts a toll on the environment, notes Stewart. The transportation of flowers relies heavily on fossil fuels, including the production of huge amounts of disposable packaging. What is the carbon cost of a grocery store bouquet? The greenhouse effect of a big church wedding? Such issues are increasingly important to consumers.
The floriculture industry described in Flower Confidential is enormous, economically and physically. The U.S. consumes 10 million cut flowers a day-nearly 4 billion per year-though it ranks only 17th in per capita cut-flower consumption. The average Swiss spends $100 a year on flowers, nearly four times that spent by the average American. When fashions change, last year's sought-after blooms become this year's mulch, creating an industry in constant flux.
Despite its hard economics, the flower business is thriving. The latest variety of gerbera featured in bridal magazines may have been created in a laboratory, but it is also breathtakingly lovely. Though independent florists have lost retail ground to supermarkets, they continue to create arrangements that delight and astonish. In the end, as Stewart's book makes clear, beauty-and romance-will always command a market share.