A Rose is Not a Rose

A Rose is Not a Rose

Long the symbol of love, irresistible desire, and ephemeral beauty, the prickliest of flowers has never been so popular, so lucrative-or so toxic for the environment. But enterprising growers and marketers are working to turn the red rose green.

By Charles Bergman/ Photography by Pablo Corral Vega
Published: January-February 2008

Although the market for organic flowers is still nascent, the charismatic Prolman believes we're poised for a revolution in the way people buy flowers. The market has grown fast: $19 million of organic flowers were sold in the United States last year, according to the Organic Trade Association. Six years ago there were practically no eco-flowers available. Prolman hopes to sell about $100 million worth of flowers during the next five years. Compared with the overall floriculture industry, which had an estimated retail value of $8 billion in 2006, organic flowers currently make up just a quarter of a percent. "But that's all about to change," said Prolman.

For a long time the only place to buy sustainable stems was at a farmers' market. Now, in addition to local sources, Whole Foods and New Seasons Market, a small chain, are selling them occasionally in season. You can also find them online, and Prolman's OrganicBouquet.com is one of a few sites. 

One key to this new market in flowers is the certification programs. Because the movement is still developing, you will find two different kinds of labels--organic and sustainable--and it's easy to get them confused. Here's the difference: Organic certification focuses on the environment, while sustainable includes both social and ecological standards. Organic, as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, requires farming practices that build rich, fertile soils and use natural means to combat pests. No synthetic chemical pesticides are allowed.

VeriFlora, the largest "sustainable" label used in North America, certified 750 million stems this year, and incorporates three categories of criteria: environmental responsibility, social responsibility, and quality control. "Environmental responsibility" allows for the limited use of synthetic pesticides--a less rigorous standard than organic--but also includes rules about packaging, greenhouse gases, and habitat mitigation. "Social responsibility" means, for example, that  workers must receive a decent salary, training, and medical care. No child labor is allowed. "Quality control" refers to procedures like keeping the flowers cold from farm to florist for freshness.

The first VeriFlora farm was certified in 2004; today there are eight growers in California, three in Colombia, and eight in Ecuador, with more on the way. Organic and VeriFlora certifications are not mutually exclusive. For example, all the roses for sale on OrganicBouquet.com are from VeriFlora or certified-organic farms in Ecuador.

Both certifications are a vast improvement on the flower that is treated with chemicals. Organic may be best for the environment, but "sustainable" flowers provide several ecological benefits as well, such as providing clean jobs to workers, many in the third world. Every certified flower you buy helps twice. It means less pollution now, and it encourages more growers to go green.

I didn't find an appreciable price difference between green and conventional flowers. In fact, when I compared online prices, a dozen roses were cheaper on OrganicBouquet.com than at 1-800-flowers.com. A dozen of the organic variety sells for roughly $50, whereas a traditional dozen sells for about $60, unless you go to the local corner store, where, at least in some cities, conventional long-stem roses can sell for $12 a dozen or less (without a vase). The only downside to certification for the consumer seems to be the possible confusion about what the various labels mean, especially if there is a risk of "greenwashing" to give a false appearance. Certification programs are only as strong as their strictness, so many people in the green flower business are eager to develop industry-wide standards. The approval of VeriFlora criteria by the American National Standards Institute would mark an important step in that direction.

Otherwise, as Amy Stewart, author of Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers, said, "I absolutely agree that certification is the future. Life on any kind of certified farm is better than it would be on a noncertified farm."

"In a few years," Prolman, ever the optimist, declared, "you won't be able to buy an uncertified flower."


To learn what a green flower means on the ground, I visited several certified farms. In Ecuador I went to one called LatinFlor, which received VeriFlora's seal of approval. When Prolman came to Ecuador, he found that the owners were already refining their innovative practices. On a sunny October morning, I met the manager, Fernando Duran, who is passionate about efforts to make the farm healthy for flowers and workers. He told me the farm now uses a quarter of the pesticides it used 20 years ago. In an effort to eliminate pesticides, Duran said, a researcher at LatinFlor had found a natural biological control for a stubborn pest, the leaf miner.

He took me into a field of baby's breath. (About 60 percent of the baby's breath grown in Ecuador gets exported to the United States.) In surrounding fields, blue delphiniums were just coming into bloom under the bright equatorial sun. Duran wanted to show me a method the farm was using to control the leaf miner. As the name suggests, this insect bores into the leaves of flowers, creating ugly brown tracks. LatinFlor's scientist had found a natural enemy, a wasp, that attacks the leaf miner's larvae. He then developed a vacuum that could be used on every plant, sucking up the dead leaf miners. 

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