Flowers are beautiful, but the legacy of nonorganic flower production is not. True, you don't eat flowers the way you do, say, an apple. So why should you be equally concerned with the impact organic versus conventional blooms have on everyone who touches them? "The problem is that commercially grown, fresh-cut flowers are generally produced with an extensive artillery of toxic fertilizers, insecticides, and fungicides," says Gerald Prolman, an organic agricultural business development expert whose California-based company, OrganicBouquet.com, supplies flowers wholesale to natural products stores. "These chemicals can negatively affect the environment, the farmworkers who handle the flowers, and the wildlife and ecology of the region."
Here, we offer a glimpse of the organic flower industry and the great reasons to choose all-natural blossoms.
Although sales of traditional flowers have held steady the past few years, sales of organic flowers in the United States grew to $16 million in 2005, up about 50 percent from the previous year, according to the Organic Trade Association.
Following the trend, Prolman's business has nearly tripled in sales each year since its inception. "When I started this company in 2001, there were no organic flowers to supply a national market," says Prolman. "Over the past few years we have developed sources in more than five countries to support our $100 million growth plans over the next five years."
Seventy percent of all cut flowers sold in the United States are grown in Central and South America, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Because of the organic trend, some ecofriendly growers have sprouted in the United States, but most distributors import their flowers. For example, OrganicBouquet.com, the country's largest ecoflower supplier, gets its flowers from Ecuador, Colombia, Holland, and Israel, as well as California and Oregon. "And we are currently working on new developments in Kenya and Ethiopia," notes Prolman.
Time to change
Of course, conventional flower farms are still the norm. Why? It's easy to douse blooms with chemicals to keep pests at bay.
It's harder to learn new farming methods that produce healthy, beautiful crops that are also pest free and promote healthy soil. Prolman, who deals with small- and large-scale organic farmers, says education is the key. "The fact is there are viable and available alternatives," he says. "It boils down to economics, experience, and support from the marketplace."
A certified flower
How can you be sure the flowers you're buying are organic?
Look for the "Veriflora Certified" seal on the plastic bouquet sleeve or on a store display. Unlike organic food, which is certified by the USDA, organic flowers are certified by the independent Scientific Certification Systems. To be certified, organic flowers must meet strict requirements for quality, agricultural practices, and social responsibility. (Food, on the other hand, becomes certified organic based solely on ingredients and agricultural practices.) According to Scientific Certification Systems, Veriflora growers must conserve environmental resources and mitigate any damage caused by farming (by restoring habitat or protecting other land, such as forests and wetlands, that's in danger of development). On the labor front, they must offer fair wages and favorable working conditions. They have to recycle or compost agricultural waste. And finally, the flowers must be grown with few or no pesticides.
Gina DeMillo Wagner is a Colorado-based freelance writer who grows organic tulips and a salsa garden (tomatoes, cilantro, onions, and jalapeños) in her back yard.