February 10, 2012 9:54 pm

War of the roses

As Valentine’s Day approaches, the thorny issues behind the international flower trade are explored

If London is still the coolest city in the world, the coolest place to shop on a Saturday morning is Broadway Market in the East End. A blues musician plays beside an oyster stall. Art-school graduates sell clothes and cupcakes. Two bakeries and a brewery have opened under the arches. The cult magazines Lost in London and UpStyler tell us that the zeitgeist of 2012 will be local, fresh and handmade.

Rebel Rebel is the florist with a client list that includes lingerie shop Agent Provocateur, White Cube gallery – and the Vatican. Their designs were the backdrop to the Pope’s conversation with the Archbishop of Canterbury in Westminster Hall in September 2010. I picture a cardinal in purple slippers gliding through the crowd of hipsters and off-stage models but suddenly remember why I’m here: Valentine’s Day. Roses, peonies, ranunculus or lilies?

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But where do these flowers come from? In England peonies and lilies bloom in May, not February. At the Garden Museum, where I work, we have begun to research the first exhibition on the history of the flower trade. The international flower trade is one of the cultural phenomena of modern times: in the past 50 years its value has increased from $3bn to $40bn. We have become the first generation in history to expect whatever flowers we want, at any time of year.

In small buckets on Rebel Rebel’s pavement are narcissi snowdrops and irises from small family growers in the Scilly Isles and Cornwall, the warm south-west of the country. Athena Duncan, one of the shop’s co-founders, tells me to go to Pratley’s – the last wholesaler to specialise in British flowers – at New Covent Garden, Britain’s biggest wholesale market.

The noisiest trading floor in the city opens at 4am on an icy, dark Monday morning. In a vast metal hangar florists in leopard prints bargain with flat-capped traders who might have stepped off the set of My Fair Lady. British flowers? “We’d have had 400 boxes a day 20 years ago,” says a trader at Pratley’s. “We can’t compete with the Dutch,” I’m told at stall after stall.

A flower auction

The flower auction at Aalsmeer, Holland

Just 10 per cent of flowers bought in Britain are British, reckons Jan Lloyd, New Covent Garden’s chief executive. But recently consumers have begun to ask for home-grown, seasonal flowers. In the City of London Coutts bank likes to see as many as possible in the displays at their hospitality events and, for a few financial institutions, it has become an element in corporate social responsibility.

The defining floral event of modern times was the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge last spring. Shane Connolly’s designs for the interior of Westminster Abbey took the breath away with their romantic simplicity. Aisles of hornbeam and maple trees lined the nave, creating not just greater intimacy but the spirituality of a sacred grove. Each tree was replanted on a royal estate afterwards. The posy and the decorations were English lily of the valley, which comes into flower in May. That was a risk, he admits. In fact, as gardens wilted during an early heatwave, Connolly was rescued by a friend with 700 spare stems at home.

Will a seasonal, home-grown and recyclable royal wedding change brides’ expectations? We shall find out this summer. But in the background to these conversations is the rumble of the thousands of Dutch trucks that criss-cross Europe before arriving at Covent Garden Market, which is being rebuilt and expanded.

There will always be a physical market for flowers, because you need to see – and smell – what you buy. The internet doesn’t yet do scratch’n’sniff. The auction house at Aalsmeer, close to Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, will never go virtual either. Here, on a site twice the size of Disney World, 20m flowers a day are eyed up, sniffed and sold. The computer-controlled greenhouses are the pride and joy of the Dutch government – employing 50,000 people – but most flowers are air-freighted from new fields on the equator, in Colombia, Ecuador and Kenya. The Dutch share is shrinking, explains Amy Stewart, author of Flower Confidential (published in the UK as Gilding the Lily) but in every new growing nation she travelled to Dutch voices cut into the conversation. A web of Dutch technology, hybrids and patents has been spun across the world.

Christopher Woodward holding a bouquet of flowers

Christopher Woodward in Broadway Market in London’s East End, holding a bouquet by Rebel Rebel florists

Stewart’s book was the first to ask if you can enjoy a red rose if you know it was dipped in a vat of anti-fungal chemicals by a worker in South America wearing an ill-fitting chemical suit. Will flower miles become the new food miles? The debate about the sources of flowers is years behind the one in food, explains Stewart: we don’t eat flowers, so we don’t make a connection with our health.

But that is changing. Stewart tells me that in her California neighbourhood arable and fruit farmers are diversifying, planting a few acres of flowers to be sold locally. There is an incipient Fairtrade movement, exemplified by the Max Havelaar Foundation’s certification programme in Switzerland. The Kenyan Flower Council argues that roses grown under glass in Holland produce six times as much CO2 as air-freighted deliveries from the open-air farms on the equator. And on its farm in Kenya, the Real Flower Company – whose boutique in Selfridges sells the sexiest Valentine’s Day roses in London – has built a dam and planted 20,000 trees.

Another book, Catherine Horwood’s Potted History, reveals that the expansion of the industry has been at the expense of a centuries-old culture of growing flowers at home, whether the vast conservatories of ducal estates or the geraniums nursed on urban windowsills. Central heating, cheap cut flowers and a consumer culture of instant gratification killed the potted plant, explains Horwood. For £100 you can buy a bouquet that provides a five-day wow – but for the same price she would pick a plant such as an African medinilla, which will offer bell-shaped pink flowers for half the year.

But, Horwood reflects, isn’t our attraction to flowers precisely because they are so ephemeral? To Athena at Rebel Rebel, the severed flower’s cycle of flowering and death intensifies our appreciation of the passing moment. To Isabel Gilbert Palmer – muse to Belgian designers, such as Geert Pattyn, who make sculptures in flowers – the soul of beauty is in transience. She quotes William Blake on a wild flower: “Hold infinity in the palm of your hand / And eternity in an hour”. The flower trade delivers eternity to our doorstep.

Will ethical flowers win a girl’s heart? I buy a bunch of widow iris from Cornwall, a small black-tongued flower that smells like perfume on skin. Just in case, I steal a fistful of the last winter roses. But whatever you buy, remind yourself that every flower is a miracle, and you should watch each petal open, die and fall.

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Petal power

Yellow tulips

The most famous episode in history was the tulip craze of early 17th-century Amsterdam

The earliest record of the international flower trade is a letter on ancient Egyptian papyrus in which an anxious grower promises a client 1,000 roses and 4,000 narcissi. The most famous episode in history was the tulip craze of early 17th-century Amsterdam, which continues to be the hub of the world trade.

In 17th-century London a flower market was built by the Duke of Bedford in Covent Garden. During the 19th century the number of stallholders tripled, owing to deliveries by railway; and in 1904 an extension was built for flowers imported from abroad, such as carnations from the south of France.

The range of plants available had been transformed by planthunters: in western China scientists dispatched by the tsar of Russia vied with collectors funded by British entrepreneurs. The greatest single innovation was a glass case invented by Nathaniel Ward, a doctor in London’s East End, in the 1830s. His simple design made it possible for seedlings to survive long sea journeys. The late 19th century was the most opulent age of international horticulture, as described in Catherine Horwood’s Potted History: aboard the Titanic, for example, were £1,000 worth of palms for an HA Dreer of Philadelphia.

Red roses

'Whatever you buy, remind yourself that every flower is a miracle'

In 1969 the enterprising founders of Floramerica alighted on Colombia as a more profitable place to grow roses than California, thanks to the weather and cheaper labour costs. Six months later the first airfreighted roses touched down. Today the global trade in cut flowers is valued at $40bn a year.

Ecuador and Colombia now compete to supply the US, while Europe gets its flowers from Kenya, where floriculture rivals tourism as the country’s biggest employer. Amy Stewart’s Flower Confidential is the best analysis of data that is sometimes dizzyingly hard to grasp – Europe and the US consume 23 trillion flowers a year – and of the controversies around labour, pesticides and water extraction.

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FIVE TOP FLORISTS

Shane Connolly (UK)

From a studio in west London Shane Connolly is floral designer to HRH The Prince of Wales; last week his flowers opened the Cecil Beaton exhibition at the V&A. He trained at Pulbrook & Gould, the home of relaxed country house style – but is at the cutting edge of sustainable and seasonal choices.

http://www.shaneconnolly.co.uk/, 44 (0)20 8964 4398

Geert Pattyn (Belgium)

After years tying bouquets as a florist Geert Pattyn has become a international star, thanks to his genius at combining spectacle with a delicate eye for sunflowers, dahlias, and cosmos, grown in his own garden in the south of Belgium; a Pattyn wedding is a work of art.

http://www.geertpattyn.be/ 32 (0) 56 51 20 05

Isabel Gilbert Palmer, muse to the circle of Dutch and Belgian sculptors, also picks:

Eddie Zaratsian (Los Angeles)

Zaratsian’s Beverley Hills Shop is the centrepiece of a LA lifestyle vision, which he attributes to his tours of the art and architecture of Europe; back home, his first celebrity client was Tom Cruise.

http://eddiezaratsian.com/ 310.508.6126

Based in Bangkok, engineer-turned-floral designer Sakul Intakul has created floral installations for the International Film Festival in Rome, and the Bulgari Hotel launch in Bali.

http://www.sakulintakul.com/ [No phone number on website]

Preston Bailey (New York)

Born in Panama, Bailey came to New York as a fashion model at the age of 19. Clients include Donald Trump and Liza Minelli. His installations make Jeff Koons looks understated but are based upon a true love of flowers.

http://portfolio.prestonbailey.com/ 212.691.6777

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