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Stop, and smell the cut flowers

Vanishing scent is just one reality of today's floral market. Author Amy Stewart digs up others too.

March 08, 2007|Suzanne Mantell | Special to The Times

"FLOWER Confidential," a behind-the-scenes look at the cut flower industry, can be found in the gardening section of bookstores, but author Amy Stewart says it is not a gardening book.

"It's the opposite of a garden book," she says. "It's about how cut flowers are not the flowers we grow in the garden."

In the new release, subtitled "The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers," Stewart travels the globe to rose megagrowers in Latin America and flower auctioneers in the Netherlands. She discovers that every rose leaving greenhouses in Ecuador is dipped in a fungicide banned for use on live plants in the U.S. She learns that a flower's energy can be devoted to longevity or to fragrance, and with shelf life so highly prized in stores, modern blooms rarely have much scent. And for those who have wondered why they're allowed only two pieces of checked luggage? She writes that the plane might need room in its belly for millions of flowers.

Cut flowers are part of the global marketplace, after all, and Stewart prompts shoppers to think hard about where their stems come from and how they got to market. The book may just get readers to see bouquets in a whole new light.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday March 13, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Arborist's name: A March 8 Home section profile of garden writer Amy Stewart misspelled the last name of Bay Area arborist Ted Kipping as Keeping.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 15, 2007 Home Edition Home Part F Page 5 Features Desk 0 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Arborist's name: A March 8 profile of garden writer Amy Stewart misspelled the last name of Bay Area arborist Ted Kipping as Keeping.

Earlier this week, speaking from a Denver stop on a book tour that brings her to Descanso Gardens tonight, Stewart reflected on how globalization has changed the cut-flower industry, especially in Southern California.

Although one of the biggest growers of cut flowers in the U.S. is the Sun Valley Group (with farms in Oxnard), other regional growers have been devastated by the rise of farms in Latin America, where land and labor are cheap. Southern California, which had an edge because of its mild climate and long growing season, no longer can compete in roses, carnations or chrysanthemums. Growers have to be creative, looking for crops that can't be raised on foreign super-farms.

"Local growers have more costs and more regulatory oversight than Latin American growers," Stewart says. "They can often produce interesting varieties you won't get as an import -- sweet peas and dahlias and other wonderful seasonal varieties."

Consumers here, she says, live in cut-flower heaven, with high-end florists creating arrangements with exotic specimens that aren't available elsewhere. "It's one of best places to be as a flower consumer, along with Miami and maybe New York," she says. "There are lots of locally grown flowers, tropicals and orchids directly flown in from Latin America and Hawaii."

She describes a newly bred rose, 'Full House,' which has chartreuse petals with the finest fringe of red. "It's the most exquisite rose I've ever seen," she says. "It was grown in California and bred to open more fully before harvested. If there is such a thing as a luxury flower, L.A. will have it."

Even the local supermarkets have much to offer.

"I was at a Ralphs, and the flowers in the store were labeled according to what country they come from, with a Veriflora certification [attesting to environmental and social responsibility], a freshness date so you can pick the most recent and a vase life guarantee. The older flowers were on a separate rack and were knocked down in price," Stewart says. "This is a very sophisticated way to sell flowers for a grocery store. And Ralphs isn't the only one. Others are beginning to get onboard with environmental issues."

STEWART, 37, a Texas native with a tomboy face and a voice sharp with clarity, lives in Northern California with her husband, the publisher of a website devoted to book collecting. She writes about garden issues for various media, so when she laments the prosaic existence of most garden writers, she knows what she's talking about.

"They get shunted to home decorating, but gardening is about how we interact with the plant kingdom and it's vitally important, not like decorating with pillows and candles, or giving five easy container tips for fall," says Stewart, who singles out author Michael Pollan ("The Botany of Desire") for elevating the genre. "I feel strongly that garden writing deserves a better place in the literary world than it gets."

The California Horticultural Society singled her out, bestowing its 2005 Writing Award for her book "The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms." Ted Keeping, a Bay Area arborist and horticulturalist who was on the awards committee, says Stewart connects with readers.

"Many of the other books we considered were quite wonderful, but hers stood out for me not only because of its engaging style but because it looked at something that not enough people look at," he says. "It hit me at so many different levels."

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