February 2007

Sarah Statz

nonfiction

Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers by Amy Stewart

It seems strangely appropriate to review a book on the flower industry during the month in which Valentine’s Day falls (or, for the more cynical among us, is “imposed upon us”). In her investigative tell-all on the flower industry, Flower Confidential, Amy Stewart explores not only that most hallowed day in retail flower sales, but also how flowers are bred, grown, shipped, purchased by wholesalers and florists, and eventually purchased by those buyers seeking to express condolences, celebrate joyous occasions, or even to apologize for various wrongdoings

Stewart, who admits her own “smutty sort of lust” for flowers, is the perfect observer and author to write such an exposé. In addition to her love for all things flower, she is also a consummate gardener who has written previous books on her interactions with growing things: in From the Ground Up, she told the story of growing her first garden; in The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms she watched her own worm farm in action and used that knowledge to explore earthworms’ other contributions to the earth. She is also a skilled writer, and switches easily between interview snippets in one paragraph, such as “I asked her if she took flowers home much. ‘No,’ she said. That was it.” and descriptive passages like “She led me over to a display cabinet where a grower was exhibiting new varieties of alstroemeria in the widest range of colors I’d ever seen, from cream and lemon to salmon, scarlet, tangerine, and purple” in the next. 

In addition to offering just plain good writing, Stewart lays bare an industry that is not often thought of as an industry. The book is split into three main segments: “Breeding,” “Growing,” and “Selling.” In the chapters on breeding, Stewart visits California’s Sun Valley Floral Farms, and explores the uneasy past relationship of the owners of that enterprise and Leslie Woodriff, a well-known but not business-savvy lily breeder. When examining how flowers are now grown, she travels from California to Holland to Ecuador, learning about very different methods of production in each location. Finally, she ends up on the wholesale and retail side of the equation, and interviews those who inspect flowers shipped to the United States from other countries; the woman in charge of public relations at Bloemenveiling Aalsmeer, the Dutch flower auction; and the owner of a small flower shop/kiosk in Santa Cruz, California. It’s a whirlwind tour, and it seems only appropriate that Stewart didn’t have much time to stop and smell the flowers, as she notes that most modern varieties have been bred for shipping-and-handling hardiness, and not for fragrance.
 
It’s a glorious little book, informative but fun to read, personal and environmentally conscious but clear-eyed in its acknowledgment of a world culture that demands global production and shipping in even its most fragile of commodities. While she does not hesitate to question various working conditions and the use of pesticides, both inside the U.S. and out, Stewart wisely lays bare the information she’s garnered and allows readers to see for themselves how complex all such interrelated issues as economics, environmentalism, and social welfare are. 
 
In the end it’s a love story about the millions of living things that give their lives to become offerings in others’ love stories: as Stewart says in her conclusion after receiving a bouquet of roses from her husband: “I stood thinking of the equatorial hoop houses they’d come from, where each of these buds towered above the heads of the workers, where Ecuadorian pop music blared from radios to keep everybody moving on the long days leading up to the holiday, where the goats grazed on weeds outside and off in the distance, the volcano was snowy and silent. Even after everything I’d seen, I was still swept up by the romance of it all.” 
 
Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers, by Amy Stewart
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
ISBN: 1565124383
306 pages