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Where did your flowers grow?

Cover of "Flower Confidential" by Amy Stewart

TESS VIGELAND: Believe me or not — and I know residents of the Midwest and East Coast probably won't — spring is here. Roses are blooming, daisies are cropping up on hillsides and in garden beds. But if flowers fill the vase on your coffee table, chances are they're pre-cut and store-bought. And you probably paid a pretty posy penny for them.

Cut flowers are a $40 billion industry. Amy Stewart writes about it in her new book "Flower Confidential." She joined me in my garden recently to talk about what sets cut flowers apart from those you can grow yourself.

AMY STEWART: I really have always had a sense that the flowers that you can buy at a flower shop are different from what we grow in our own gardens. I mean, have you ever grown a carnation in your garden?

VIGELAND: No, and I never will.

STEWART: That's right. And yet, they're one of the top-three selling flowers in the United States. And the first time I went to a flower farm, it just so happens that Sun Valley, which is the largest grower of cut flowers in the country, is right down the street from me in Northern California. And the first time I went there, I realized, this is a factory. These plants aren't even growing in the ground, they're being grown hydroponically in these plastic containers. They're on an assembly line being cut and processed. This is merchandise.

VIGELAND: Where do most of our flowers come from?

STEWART: Well, most of the cut flowers that we buy in the United States are coming from Latin America. About 78 percent of our flowers are imported now . . .

VIGELAND: Seventy-eight percent?

STEWART: Seventy-eight percent. And that number's growing every year.

VIGELAND: Why is that?

STEWART: It was really an economic decision, you know? In the 60s, some businessmen took a look at where in the world flowers could be grown. Where there would be very low energy costs, cause the climate would be perfect; where wages are low. And because by then, commercial jet travel was becoming more and more widespread. It actually became possible to grow flowers on the equator, where the climate's perfect, and fly them out of Bogota

or out of Quito

into Miami. And then drive them across the country on our, what at that time was, sort of our newly perfected interstate highway system.

VIGELAND: That seems an awful long way for a cut flower to go. How does it stay so pretty when I buy it at the florist?

STEWART: Yeah, it is a long way for them to go. And you know, it is all about temperature. I went down to Ecuador and walked through greenhouses, and let me tell you it is a race to get them out of the greenhouse as soon as they've been cut and get them into the production rooms, where they can be chilled down to 34 to 38 degrees. If you can keep a flower cold, you can keep it fresh for a surprisingly long period of time. The longer it sits out, you know, in warm temperatures or even room temperatures, the more vase life you use.

VIGELAND: A lot of people, I think, don't really think about it, unless and until they go to the florist and they have to pay 40 bucks or 50 bucks for a nice arrangement. It's very expensive to get flowers in this country.

STEWART: Mmm hmm. Well, you know, a lot goes into those flowers. I mean, you start with how they're bred. I've talked to breeders who have already invested $10 million in one flower. So you think about that kind of money going up front just to create a flower that everyone would want — like a blue rose or something really exotic and extraordinary. And they're collecting royalties, you know. The growers are paying royalties back to the breeders, much like in the music industry or the publishing industry. And then, of course, the flowers have to be grown and cut and shipped, usually on refrigerated trucks and planes. I mean, there is a lot of infrastructure that goes into just physically getting the flowers to the flower shop.

VIGELAND: Wow. I notice when I go to a big-box store, that they're a whole lot less expensive there than if I were to go to a florist or even my local supermarket.

STEWART: When you're paying less for flowers, here's the issue: you may be getting different varieties, cheaper varieties. Also, grocery stores or just any kind of big-box kind of outlet like that is probably less likely to refrigerate the flowers properly. Which means they're losing vase life very quickly. If they're anywhere near the produce department, produce gives off a tremendous amount of ethylene

— that causes flowers to wilt. So, anytime I walk into a grocery store and I see one of those big bins of apples and right next to it, I see the floral department — I'll never buy those flowers. Those flowers are not gonna last. It's very interesting to me that grocery stores know how to take care of all their other perishable products, but they in many cases don't know how to take care of their flowers.

VIGELAND: Well, Amy Stewart, thank you so much for visiting me in my backyard.

STEWART: Thank you!

About the author

Tess Vigeland is the host of Marketplace Money, where she takes a deep dive into why we do what we do with our money.

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