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Oh, my aching muscles...
Purchase Posies Responsibly

By Lorene Edwards Forkner

There’s no denying a flower’s power. Whether it’s the lush extravagance of a bride’s bouquet or the sweetly fragrant posy announcing a child’s birth, the pull on our heartstrings is real. Flowers even have a language all their own developed over the years by poets, lovers and the occasional passive/aggressive lout.

A quaint practice begun in the Victorian period allowed shy, repressed suitors to send secret messages by means of a carefully chosen bouquet—be it one of sweet sentiment composed of carnations, red roses and heliotrope denoting faithfulness, love and devotion respectively; or a cleverly disguised social dagger containing snapdragons, yellow roses and zinnias with their implicit message of revenge, jealousy and absence! Beyond such arcane practices, individual blossoms are capable of strong personal connotation and sentiment for even the most jaded.

Over the years as the owner of a small nursery, I estimate that I sold over 15,000 packets of sweet pea seeds

(roughly 1,200 packets x 13 seasons). That’s a lot of sweet peas! The blossoms are generally pastel in color with a sweet, delicate scent evoking memories of grandparents and visions of romantic summer bouquets. I’ve often wondered whether these memories are authentic or a part of a larger collective unconsciousness; such is the power of this simple flower that inspires the young and the old, the gruff and the gentle alike.

I used to think the harsh yellow flowers of forsythia were a brash, loud and gaudy stain on the just-emerging spring landscape until the passing of my dear friend Dave this past March. As we gathered, filched and foraged long branches for his memorial service I began to see these golden blossoms as friendly, warm and congenial, able to draw one from the shell of winter or shyness—not at all unlike this giant of a man, chief of his tribe and leader of the band.

All sentiment aside—flowers are powerful stuff. In 2005 the United States Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis estimated $19.4 billion dollars were spent on flowers at retail. Spring is high season for the floriculture industry driven largely by Mother’s Day, the traditional wedding season and an annual spate of new babies. Speaking with a local farmer last winter, I learned that flowers are a go-to crop for recession times with a monetary square-foot return that is reliably greater than an edible crop—producing a whole different kind of cabbage. 

Perhaps obviously, flowers are a supremely perishable crop. It used to be that only the wealthy with their greenhouses and staff had access to flowers year-round. With the evolution of refrigeration, overnight shipping, and post-harvest handling practices, the greater temperate world is our cutting garden. The result: nearly 80% of all flowers sold in the US are imported. Concerned consumers would do well to ask what environmental message we are sending along with our carefully composed and thoughtfully chosen bouquets. We can aspire to a local, organic and sustainable diet but our roses very likely come from thousands of miles away consuming great quantities of fuel en route to the corner market.

Flowers are a lucrative crop in Latin America, supported by tariff-free import laws designed to encourage and strengthen an economy not based on drug trafficking. Flowers are difficult to cultivate organically, however, where the tiniest spot or nibble on a leaf—something we’ve come to tolerate in our organic vegetables—lessens the economic value of a flower. This demand for an unnatural perfection necessitates the use of a toxic soup of chemicals to keep pests and disease at bay. In many ways, this romantic crop we think of in such sentimental and emotional terms has become just another industrial product produced on a commercial scale often at the expense of workers’ health and the environment.

In response to mounting awareness of the degradation of the environment in the name of beauty, a growing movement is underway to produce sustainable stems. An important key to this new market is a program of certification. Enter VeriFlora in 2004. Flowers sold in the United States bearing this label assure the consumer that their purchase, be it an individual bouquet from the florist or the big bang quantities consumed by the hotel and restaurant hospitality industry are produced under sustainable agricultural and labor standards.

 “The farmers, distributors, wholesalers and florists who grow and handle VeriFlora flowers and plants are committed to delivering only the highest quality products, produced with rigorous environmental accountability while at the same time addressing the health and well-being of workers, their families and communities.”—

This system, one of several that are being devised to address this issue, is a valuable tool for consumers who want to use their buying power to opt out of an environmentally corrupt cycle of commercial flower production; such choices have the power to drive the market and effect real change. Closer to home, we can encourage and support small family farms with the bouquets we purchase at local farmers markets. It’s one way we consumers can keep resources within the community while helping to alleviate these economically hard times.

From flowers in the hair of 1960’s peace demonstrators to the crowning mantle of red roses placed on the winning horse at the Kentucky Derby, flowers signify powerful feelings. I know my crop of backyard sweet peas this year will hold special meaning because they were Big Dave’s favorite flower. The question is, can we feel as passionate about the provenance of our flowers as we are about their fragrance, beauty, and symbolism? With thoughtfulness we can fashion bouquets that feed our soul, brighten our homes and are healthful for the planet and its people. In so doing, we cultivate a truly good life. NWGN

Lorene Edwards Forkner is a freelance writer and garden designer. Get in touch at




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