Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
New England
January, 2008
Regional Report

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Roses are not the only symbol of love on Valentine's Day but they are the most popular.

For the Love of Flowers

Valentine's Day is coming up and we're all well trained to "say it with flowers." Mostly red ones. According to a Society of American Florists' estimate, more than 175 million red roses are sold on Valentine's Day. I've always wondered how red roses initially earned the status of the "must have" flower for this occasion. With all the wonderful choices, why the emphasis on this particular flower and this particular color?

Rose lore abounds: Rose petals were scattered on the floor of Cleopatra's palace, and the people of ancient Greece adorned themselves with garlands of roses and splashed themselves with rose-scented oils. Recently I was reading about using flowers to enhance the feng shui of our living and working spaces (feng shui is simply described as the art of living in harmony with the environment using the five elements of wood, fire, earth, metal, and water), and I found out that the fire element rises in energy during February. This element is identified with love, passion, warmth, and spontaneity. Turns out that red, pink, and purple flowers and exotic flowers from a hot climate possess the most fire energy, so they are especially auspicious flower choices during February. Ahhh.

You may not yet be thinking about what flowers you'll buy for someone on Valentine's Day (and if you're male chances are you won't be thinking about it until the day of), but florists have been obsessing about it for weeks. Flowers are arriving in their shops, and vases are being filled with greens, awaiting the final addition of (usually) red roses, which begins several days ahead of Valentine's Day. This is the biggest day of the year for florists.

If we lived in California, the roses we select might be grown across town or across the state. But in most of the country, the flowers we buy are likely to come from Colombia or another Latin American country, where the climate is gentler and the labor costs lower. When I began my horticulture degree at Colorado State University in the 1970s, Colorado had a cut flower industry, with roses, carnations, and other florist specialties grown in enormous greenhouses. By the time I graduated, the fuel crisis and the lure of cheap land and cheap labor in the tropics had all but pushed the market right out of Colorado and much of the U.S.

Flowers are Big Business
I moved on from my plan to grow cut flowers commercially but my latent interest was piqued when I picked up the book Flower Confidential by Amy Stewart. She's an amusing and incredibly thorough writer who presents a fascinating (if you love flowers) behind-the-scenes look at the business of flowers -- breeding, growing, and selling. She hopped planes all around the world, visiting key players such as flower farms in Ecuador and the Dutch flower auction, where nearly half of the world's cut flowers spend some time. I could have sworn I smelled roses while reading it.

Stewart tells us that almost a third of Americans will buy flowers or a plant for Valentine's Day, and about half of them will want roses, and most of those will be red. Two thirds of the orders will come from men, who mostly buy for their wives or significant others, while most of the women will buy for themselves or their mothers. This year things look promising for florists because Valentine's Day falls midweek -- on a Thursday -- so people can also send flowers to coworkers and get to see their responses. (Office flirtations?)

The story of the commercial flower industry is like any big business, and it has its thorny issues (pun intended). All is not sunny south of the border, where land use and worker safety (all those chemicals used to combat insects and diseases) raise some of the same concerns the food industry faces. The journey from a plant breeder's wish to the flowers on our table is full of intricacies, and it's amazing that so much effort goes into producing this nonessential commodity (forgive me) -- something that gives sustenance not to our bodies but to our spirits.

Although I know not to eat edible flowers (rose petals and violets, for example) that come from a florist, I'll now keep my nose out of florist bouquets, too, after learning that many are dipped in fungicide before shipping. Organically grown flowers are available online and at some retail shops, and we can ask our florists where they get their flowers, and about the availability of organically grown options and even flowers grown closer to home. To my surprise, when I asked my favorite shop, I found that they carry Vermont-grown lilies for several months of the year. Natural food stores and farmers' markets are, of course, good bets for finding organic flowers.

Wherever you buy your Valentine's Day flowers this year, order early and be bold; give some pink or purple roses or exotic flowers from a hot climate. Chances are your bouquet will get more personal attention from both the florist and the recipient because it's unique. May your gift inspire spontaneity!

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