Thursday, December 4, 2008

Book review: Flower Confidential, by Amy Stewart

I've never written a book review before. A book report, yes (though even that was fifteen years ago), but not a review. So I'm not sure what to do here, and you'll have to bear with me.

Fortunately, a quick Google search for "how to write a book review" has at least given me a pretty solid crutch to lean on, and if this post doesn't rise to the level of art, well, I'd settle for being thought competent. I'd even be okay with a well, dear, it was his first try, let's not be too hard on him.


The promise Amy Stewart (of Garden Rant, and also her personal blog Dirt) makes with the title Flower Confidential is that she's going to take the reader behind the scenes in the floral industry. We're going to hear secrets, in other words. And kinda we do.

Zantedeschia NOID. All the pictures in this post are my own, and all but the mums and carnations are recycled from previous posts. I kind of meant to take pictures of the flower shop's stuff, but never managed to think of it at the right moments.

I would like to find fault with the book, because of ongoing resentment about Stewart's anti-houseplant attitude (she's my nemesis, you know), but I really can't. There are spots I wish she'd gone into more detail about, and of course I'm not sure I like her skipping over live plants entirely, but there's nothing in the book that feels unnecessary. When I started to write this, I felt like the book didn't all hold together exactly -- nothing wrong with it, but the individual chapters felt like they stood alone and didn't really connect to the chapters before or after them, even though when I read through it the first time I didn't notice any jarring transitions. Going back through the book again for this review, though, there is a narrative there: Stewart basically takes us through the process, step by step, from the idea of a particular flower to its actual sale to a customer. So I can't even complain about that.1

In any case, the nine chapters give a pretty comprehensive look at the business, one aspect at a time, and usually with a single central species to illustrate the topic at hand.

The first chapter is about plant breeding, the old fashioned way with pollen, anthers, and camel-hair brushes, and revolves around the development of the Stargazer lily. It's not the happiest of stories, but it's fascinating, and probably my favorite chapter in the book (this being the closest to what I would like to be doing myself -- except for the semi-tragic ending).

Chapter two focuses on genetic engineering, and specifically, the efforts of breeders and engineers to create - for some reason - a blue rose.2 There's also a lot in this chapter about genetics and biology: why one has to trade scent for longevity when breeding roses, what florists do to keep flowers from dying until they're sold (and why those things work), why flower petals containing identical pigment compounds can, nevertheless, be different colors.

Viola 'Cutie Pie.'

With chapter three, we move into the territory of the growers, and there's less of a solid species hook: much of the chapter is devoted to Don Garibaldi, a third-generation grower in California, whose family has been producing violets for a hundred years. Chapter three kind of dances around the idea that it's not really practical for people to grow flowers in the U.S. anymore, because they can be produced elsewhere and shipped in much more easily -- i.e., that the same thing has happened to flower producers that has happened to every other kind of manufacturing job -- but the focus is on the history, back when it was still feasible to grow things here. (Violets are an exception because they're so short-lived that they really have to be produced and consumed in more or less the same place, it turns out, though what this seems to have meant in actuality is that people have just stopped buying cut violets.)

Chapter four highlights one of the few U.S. producers still operating, Sun Valley Floral Farms, in Oxnard, California, and describes large-scale flower production for the first time.

Gerbera jamesonii cv.

Chapter five takes the reader to the Netherlands, for more large-scale flower production, this time of gerbera daisies in hydroculture, and more roses (rosaphobes should probably stay away from this book). This, too, sounded awfully appealing to me, in a weird way: the part I was really jealous of was how clean it all sounded. It's not so much that it sounded high-tech (though it did, and one gets the uneasy sense, reading along in the book, that the world does not have room for any new flower producing companies at the moment, and if it's your dream to start one, you are probably s.o.l.), though I like high-tech: it's that it sounded orderly. Try though WCW and I might, there's only so much grooming, watering and rearranging two people can do in 48 hours a week, and there are always things left undone. I dream of having the time to actually get everything clean and where it is supposed to be.

Rosa NOID.

Chapter six: if you can't go high-tech and enormous, go medium-sized and move your operation to Ecuador, or Columbia. At least for roses. (Yes, roses again.) Stewart glowingly describes roses of three colors (pink/white/green), roses the size of baseballs, roses displayed in perfect spheres four and five feet in diameter, the rose equivalents of high fashion and gemstones. And she's really very good: her description of 'Limbo' (a green rose) was so hyperbolic that I tried finding a picture on-line, though I wasn't able to come up with anything that gave me a clue of what she was talking about. (When I eventually did, much later, find a picture of 'Limbo,' I was actually kind of disappointed: I was envisioning a kind of pistachio ice-gream green, not chartreuse.) The set-up in this chapter is skillful: she tells you about all these absolute marvels of flowers coming out of Ecuador, and then she makes you feel bad for wanting one: oh yeah, and the typical monthly wage for a flower farm worker in Ecuador is $150. And one other thing: they dip the flowers, flower, stem and all, in fungicide, and they employ children,3 and the children do the fungicide dipping too, and have various neurological problems, and sexual harrassment is rampant, and so on in that vein. And then she flips it back around on you again, noting that whatever its shortcomings, people need to have jobs or they don't eat, and what would you have Ecuador do, wreck one of the very few obvious and prospering industries in the country to ease your conscience?4

Chapter seven opens with this tension still very much intact, but Stewart ignores it and takes us to Miami, where we look around at the airport, and the flower import inspection facilities, which is pretty much just as exciting as it sounds. The chapter gets more interesting as it goes along, though, eventually circling back around to the question of how to buy flowers without exploiting people in other countries. The answer seems to be to buy flowers certified as organic and Fair Trade and so forth, and Stewart does a good job of, having raised tension in the previous chapter, dispelling it in this one, by telling you what the various certifications mean, and without being preachy or tedious.

NOID mums.

Chapter eight is where the going gets strange. Stewart first covers the Dutch flower auctions, the weird process by which flowers by the millions are brought into the Netherlands, bought and sold, and then flown back out again to their buyers. It's a little ridiculous-sounding, but it's also kind of the logical end result of a country that takes flowers as seriously as the Dutch do. The psychology of this chapter is very weird: Stewart asks some perfectly sensible-seeming questions about, you know, why on earth anybody would need to fly millions of flowers from the growers across an ocean to be auctioned off, only to have to fly them back out of the country again, why this whole auction system is necessary at all, and she doesn't really get particularly good answers. It's unclear whether the Dutch were failing to understand Stewart or Stewart was failing to understand the Dutch, but it reads like somebody was obviously not understanding somebody. Chapter eight is also where we see Multi Color Flowers, a company that buys up flowers, dyes them, and then resells them to exporters. And it doesn't have to be dye, either: it could be paint, it could be [shuddering] glitter, it could be whatever there's a demand for. There are more questions than answers at the end of that bit, too.

Anthurium 'Florida.'

Chapter nine is the only part I had any real prior connection to: nine is where we get into retail. I knew something about this already, from the flower shop attached to the garden center where I work,5 though there was still a lot in this chapter that I hadn't considered before. The general trend seems to be away from flowers, for funerals and weddings and so forth. People would still buy flowers for friends and relatives in the hospital, but of course hospital stays are getting shorter and shorter as HMOs become more and more able to dictate the conditions of care. In the remaining cases where people might still buy flowers, there's increased competition from grocery stores and discount retailers like Wal-Mart. So regular florists are being pushed to come up with new ways to compete, either by moving into more specialized territory (becoming more experimental and artistic) or by trying to convince the population in general to buy more flowers, for more occasions. Either way, I think the profession is pretty screwed, though there will always be people who manage to do well anyway. Stewart also notes that florists are maybe not as up on what their customers actually desire as they could be -- but I'll let you read the book for that part.

Rosa NOID.

Stewart then includes a small epilogue specifically about Valentine's Day, a smaller afterword about flower certification and the floral industry's efforts to drum up support for local retail flower shops, a page and a half of tips on caring for cut flowers, and then some statistics and notes. Just to cover anything you might possibly want to know that had been left out.

It's an admirably complete book. There might have been just a little bit about houseplants in there, considering that houseplants go pretty much everywhere that cut flowers do, are bought and sold by the same people, and have many of the same problems. I mean, one gets the impression that Stewart had to work to avoid talking about them (or, perhaps, that she stuck her fingers in her ears and started yelling "LA LA LA I CAN'T HEAR YOU" every time the subject came up6), which is not exactly surprising but still disappoints. (She could have at least given me something about orchids: I know they're occasionally sold as cut flowers.) It remains a good book, full of all kinds of interesting information, and even though it probably looks like I've given you all the good stuff in the review already, I assure you that I have not.

Dianthus caryophyllus (carnation) assortment.

And just to point it out -- Christmas is coming up. If you know any aspiring flower breeders or florists or wedding planners or gardeners or immigrants to the Netherlands, you could do a lot worse than picking them up a copy of Flower Confidential. Seriously.


1 If I'd really wanted to find fault with the book, I could take my cues from the Amazon reviews: Stewart is criticized for her omission of seed production, for her lack of photographs (which I'd guess was probably the publisher's fault, not Stewart's: she mentions taking lots of photos in the text, but color plates are expensive and jack up book prices, and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the publisher had vetoed photos in the hopes of selling more books), for "rambling in the middle," and (from a reviewer called "Informed Citizen") for sounding emotional, or for promoting organic gardening (the horror!), or something -- it's actually kind of hard to tell what "Informed Citizen's" problems are, though I wouldn't be surprised if psychiatric medications, and possibly lead-based paint, were involved at some level.
2 Everybody acts kind of baffled throughout, at the idea that anybody would want one, but even if they were never particularly good sellers on their own, I foresee a huge demand in the U.S. around Independence Day, if at no other time. The contortions we have to go through sometimes at work to pretend that a group planting is red, white and blue, when it is very obviously red, white, and dark purple (this is particularly the case with petunias), is kind of astonishing the first few times you see it. Stewart's attitude wavers during the course of the chapter, variously viewing the idea with disgust and finding it possibly intriguing -- in the end, she seems to settle on the perfectly sensible approach of, well, I'll decide whether I like it when I see it.
3 She doesn't come right out and say this, and it's conceivable that it's not actually the case, or that it used to be the case but isn't anymore, or that it was only the case with a few bad growers, or whatever. But still: UNICEF has reported that six percent of Ecuadoran children between the ages of five and fourteen are engaged in child labor of some kind or another, and Stewart also notes that "Even children who claim not to work in greenhouses can give a surprisingly detailed account of how the work is done, leading one to believe that at the very least, they have spent a great deal of time there." It's not clear whether this is her own observation or whether she's paraphrasing UNICEF, but whatever the case, there does seem to be something a little hinky about the whole situation. Where there's smoke, there's child labor, or something like that.
4 Actually, no, this is probably my favorite chapter, and it's mostly because of the way Stewart does this. Just when you think the whole thing is going to be boosterism for the Ecuadoran flower trade, out come the UNICEF statistics. And just when you think she's gone off into bleeding-heart liberal territory, ruining roses for you forever, she yanks you back in the other direction. Global economics is complicated, and it's to Stewart's credit that she manages to acknowledge this in an even-handed, fluid way. (Or at least I thought it was even-handed.)
5 In a rare reversal of gender stereotypes, the garden center is run by the boss, and the flower shop is run by her husband. I don't have a lot of direct contact with the flower shop, though the greenhouse and flower shop overlap on certain things. Like for example, the flower shop has a table of seasonal blooming plants (mums, Kalanchoe blossfeldiana, azaleas, so many cyclamens it makes me sick, gerbera daisies, the vile rieger begonias, etc.) in the greenhouse, which are their responsibility to keep groomed and watered and stuff. However, I've discovered that if I actually rely on the flower shop to watch their table, I still get yelled at for not keeping that table properly watered and groomed. Also, the flower shop sells and delivers a fair percentage of the green plants (particularly Spathiphyllum, Dracaena deremensis 'Lemon-Lime,' and Ficus elastica) for office-warmings and sympathy plants. They have the extremely annoying habit, which we've discussed repeatedly, of taking flowers off of the greenhouse plants, especially the Anthurium scherzerianums, rather than buying them from their suppliers as needed for arrangements. This is particularly offensive when it comes to the Anthuriums, as I have usually spent a couple weeks anticipating the opening of the flower, and then I come in one day and it's just gone. It also makes it, as you could imagine, harder to sell the Anthuriums in question if they are never actually in bloom. (The flower shop's excuse is that Anthurium flowers are expensive, and they usually don't need them very often, so there's little call for them to buy a whole box at $7 a stem or whatever it is, especially not if we happen to have one right there. This seems reasonable, but if that's going to be how it is, then the flower shop should get and maintain a few of their own Anthuriums as stock plants, and leave the ones that are for sale alone.)
6 Yeah, I'm still a little bitter.


no1uno said...

thanks for the clever extensive review and the great gift idea. I know someone who this will be perfect for.

Kylee said...

You know, I'll be honest - I didn't read your entire review. Not even half of it. However, I'm glad you wrote it and you undoubtedly spent a great deal of time composing it. As a fellow garden blog writer, I can certainly appreciate that.

I'm glad, because:

1. I loved the photos you posted.
2. I have wanted to read this book for quite some time and haven't.
3. It has caused me to put this book on my Christmas list, which my two lovely daughters have been clamoring for since Thanksgiving. Maybe one of them will buy it for me.

lynn'sgarden said...

Flower Confidential has been in my stack to read so I feel (fortunate?) that I came across your review here Mr_Subjunctive. If anything, to keep these points in mind and see if I agree or not. Great post!!!

singapore florist said...

i love the 3rd and 4th flowers. the pastel color are just amazed me.