Early on a Tuesday morning in mid-August, in one of the worst fire seasons in years, the forests surrounding Missoula continue to burn, leaving a campfire smell on the wind and producing billows of smoke that dull the skies to apocalyptic gray. But at a small residential garage in Missoula, the Westside Flower Market is in full swing, providing a fragrant refuge from the bad air and a sense that there’s still color and life on earth.
Lush raspberry canes flank the entrance where florists enter each week to peruse flowers, ornamental grasses and foliage. Buckets of Ruby Silk and Green Tails Amaranthus mimic the cascade of weeping willows. There's a congregation of bright cosmos and dahlias—multiple varieties in shades of pink, yellow and orange. There's Mountain Ash, its orange berries still ripening on the boughs, and, on a nearby table, a bundle of feathery white scabiosa.
"That's my mom's favorite, because it reminds her of a Harry Potter spell," says Carly Jenkins, grinning and flinging her arm into the air like a magician. "Scabiosa!"
Jenkins owns Killing Frost Farm. She's also the mastermind behind the market, which she started last summer, and co-manages with flower grower Kathy Sherba of Missoula's Mighty Fine Farm. The Westside Flower Market is a place where flower growers from Missoula and the Bitterroot and Flathead valleys can drop off freshly cut flowers for florists to pick up. Sherba and Jenkins keep track of the sales—they take 20 percent for their services—and work as brokers to make sure florists are getting what they need. In the past, if Missoula florists wanted to source flowers from local growers, they had to work out the logistics directly with individual farms.
- photo by Amy Donovan
The Westside Flower Market is a sign that things are changing for Montanans in the flower business. In fact, the flower industry is changing nationwide. Currently, 80 percent of flowers bought in the United States are sourced from foreign markets. Colombia produces about 78 percent of those, Ecuador contributes 15 percent, and the rest come from China, Europe and Africa. Over the past five years, many American flower growers and sellers have conspired to change those numbers in an effort known as the "slow flower" movement, the principles of which mimic the already thriving local food movement that's been growing in popularity for more than a decade.
Debra Prinzing, a Seattle journalist, master gardener and host of the Slow Flowers podcast, writes about the movement's three-pronged philosophy:
First, as a flower arranger, she works primarily with flowers that are in season. "So, come December and January," she writes, "my commitment to sourcing locally-grown floral materials sends me to the conifer boughs, colored twigs and berry-producing evergreens—and the occasional greenhouse-grown rose, lily or tulip, just to satisfy my hunger for a bloom."
Second, it's artisanal by nature, the kind of know-your-farmer ideal that excludes mass-market operations and big-industry brokers.
Finally, the slow flower movement is about taking the time to enjoy beauty in a manner conjured by the phrase "stop and smell the roses." It's about approaching flowers with care and deliberateness.
"When I say the phrase 'slow flowers,'" Prinzing writes, "there are those who immediately understand it to mean: I have made a conscious choice."
The Westside Flower Market is becoming a space where local florists and flower growers can make conscious choices and, at the same time, build relationships and share knowledge. Consumers too, can play a role in the slow flower movement.
"Maybe Valentine's Day doesn't mean a dozen pink roses," Jenkins says. "Maybe it can mean something different."
"It might be unromantic to call a flower a commodity or a manufactured product, but flowers are both," writes journalist Amy Stewart in her new book, Flower Confidential. "They are ephemeral, emotional and impractical, but we Americans buy about four billion of them a year. We buy more flowers than we do Big Macs. Flowers are big business. It just happens to be a gorgeous, bewitching, bewildering business."
Flowers that are shipped to the U.S. from overseas are cut long before they blossom. They end up blooming inside metal containers around the time they land at the airport, usually in Miami.
And most flowers are shipped to the U.S. from overseas, in large part because of a U.S. government policy. In 1991, two decades after then-President Richard Nixon declared "war on drugs," the U.S. entered into the Andean Trade Preference Agreement, which eliminated tariffs on many South American products. It also encouraged farmers in Colombia and Ecuador to grow flowers instead of coca, which was ending up as cocaine. The cheap, duty-free flowers they began to grow devastated the U.S. flower industry. California, which once boasted 500 flower farms, has been reduced to just 200.
And it's not just U.S. growers that have suffered. Many flower-exporting countries have no pesticide regulations, no unions, no rules about child labor. Seemingly every year, as Valentine's Day and Mother's Day approach, muckraking magazines run horror stories about imported flowers, exposing the long hours worked by rose-picking children and the pesticide-induced miscarriages suffered by women who make Mother's Day bouquets possible.
- photo by Amy Donovan
- Carly Jenkins of Killing Frost Farm, left, and Kathy Sherba of Mighty Fine Farm, started the Westside Flower Market last summer.
That's not to say all foreign flower farms have poor labor or pesticide practices. As with coffee, South America features plenty of fair-trade flower farms. But the feature that makes the global floral system work for florists is the same thing that makes it nearly impossible for florists to know where their flowers come from. Mainstream florists mostly order from brokers, which work with multiple farms to fulfill orders. It's often not cost-effective for florists to coordinate with individual farms. And so many florists are looking for ways to combine the efficiency of the global market with reliable access to farms that enforce best practices. Sometimes it can take a while to make that happen.
In 2009, a year after Lindsay Irwin bought Bitterroot Flower Shop, she decided to try selling "eco-roses"roses grown sustainably on organic farms with fair labor practices. She ordered the roses through her flower broker and they arrived looking beautiful. As with organic food, organic flowers are more expensive. A few enthusiastic customers bought them, but many of Irwin's eco-roses ended up in the garbage.
"It was heartbreaking," Irwin says. "Because we had been really excited to bring them in."
Bitterroot is the second-biggest flower shop in Montana. There aren't currently enough local flowers available to provide the quantity and variety Irwin needs to stock the shop, but she recently established a "local flower" section in the shop's cooler, and she attends the Westside Flower Market each week to purchase what she can.
"I think some customers are clearly excited to see emphasis put on the local," she says. "Then there's some customers that don't really care, but I think if they knew more of the story they would care."