By Chere Di Boscio
Whether pink, red or white, there’s nothing quite as perfect as a rose. Their silky petals, their distinctive perfume and their romantic connotations have made them a favourite with romantics for centuries. However, when you learn the truth about the environmental impact of flowers, they seem a bit less lovely.
First off, because they are so fragile and their lives are so short, fresh roses in shops almost never come from local garden centres. Instead, they are often flown in from warmer countries—in fact, about 80% of all roses come from South America or Africa. And don’t forget that roses take loads of water to thrive (which is why they do so well in the wet UK), and to keep pests at bay, they are often heavily sprayed with pesticides.
Once budding, they’re then transported in refrigerated trucks across the U.S. or the Continent and locked up overnight in cold boxes before their onward journey to the florists of the world. According to Flowerpetal.com, which tries to limit the environmental impact of flower purchases, sending the roughly 100 million roses of a typical Valentine’s Day produces some 9,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from field to U.S. florist.
Is Local Better? Not Always
Even when they’re grown more locally, the carbon footprint of a flower may not be much lighter.
A 2007 study by Cranfield University in England found that raising 12,000 Kenyan roses resulted in 13,200 pounds (6,000 kilograms) of CO2; the equivalent number grown in a Dutch hothouse emitted 77,150 pounds (35,000 kilograms) of CO2. The Dutch roses needed artificial light, heat and cooling over their 8-12 week growth cycle, whilst those from abroad at least saved energy by using the natural light of the sun.
Aware of this issue, some floral producers have created a ‘green’ flower labels, including “FlorEcuador” “VeriFlora” and “Florverde“. Any bouquets that carry these stamps ensure a high environmental and social standards for workers.
For example, Florverde’s standards include minimal water use via drip irrigation and rainwater collection; hummus fertilization; boilers with air pollution filters; sulfur vaporization; integrated pest control for 46 percent less pesticide use; and environmentally sensitive waste disposal.
Moreover, they offer their workers educational and housing subsidies; day care centers; literacy education, higher- and shorter- than-average wages and workweeks, respectively; on-site health care; full benefits including medical, disability and retirement insurance; and a floriculture school for those displaced by violence.
Still, that doesn’t solve the problem completely. Roses are so delicate they can’t be shipped by sea, thus those air miles are still an issue.
So what are flower lovers (and lovers who want to gift flowers) to do?
The obvious solution is to buy locally grown flowers, but again, these are usually the product of energy-consuming hothouses. There are now organic flower delivery services online, but even if those flowers are grown without chemicals, they still have the same carbon footprint as conventional flowers. Instead, heartier flowers like lilies, gladioli, birds of paradise and sunflowers can survive 3 day shipping trips, and thus are not flown in, reducing their eco-impact greatly.
However, in season, some flowers, such as daffodils, dahlias and jasmine can be locally grown without the use of a hothouse, so if you really want to be eco-friendly, you should buy locally grown flowers in season.
As for those long-stemmed beauties, well, it seems roses simply aren’t the most sustainable of flowers. But not to worry: there are plenty of eco-friendly alternatives.
Any florist with a bit of creativity can create something wonderful with sustainable plants, such as cacti, ferns or even vegetables, to wonderful effect. Local wildflowers, such as lily of the valley, Queen Anne’s Lace and poppies are also gorgeous and when blended with greens. Peonies, a favourite with many women, is in season in Europe during the spring, as is Ranunculus, a native European flower similar to the Peony.
All the flowers and plants mentioned above are also perfect for brides, not just for their bouquets, but for table decoration at weddings, too. Alternatively, those with an Eastern European heritage may want to use wheat–the traditional bouquet of the region, symbolising prosperity and plenty. Intellectuals, writers or book lovers may go in for a quirky bouquet made of the recycled pages of a favourite book, and for a wonderfully scented home or wedding venue, nothing beats bunches of lavender.
In any case, as lovely as roses may be, they are a bit of a romantic cliche. Don’t special people and occasions call for flowers that are a little more unique?