For many years I was single and lived in a large high-rise on Manhattan's Upper East Side. On Valentine's Day, so many bouquets would be jammed in the lobby by the time I got home from work that the doorman would be nearly camouflaged by petals.
But each year, as I stepped through the door, he'd pop out from behind his floral shield and eagerly check to see if one of these lovely bundles was addressed to me. If not – well, it was a disappointing moment for both of us, to say the least.
Now, as it happens, I'm married to a man who never – on any occasion – forgets to buy flowers. And yet, to paraphrase Joni Mitchell, I've seen flowers from both sides now and I remain a bit conflicted.
So, it turns out – although for far more sobering reasons – is Amy Stewart, author of Flower Confidential: The Good, The Bad, and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers. On the one hand, Stewart, who is a garden writer (she writes for Organic Gardening magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle and writes a feisty garden blog at www.gardenrant.com), simply adores flowers.
"I've always had a generalized, smutty sort of lust for flowers," she confesses during an early morning stroll through the San Francisco flower market. "It almost didn't matter what they had for sale that day – I knew that I would want whatever they had. Wild poppies, hothouse roses, dime-store carnations – whatever it is, I'll take it."
But after reading Stewart's book about "floriculture" (that's what they're calling it these days), it's impossible not to cast a wider gaze on our innocent love of these beautiful things.
The flower industry is today a $40- billion business worldwide. Here in the United States we buy about 4 billion stems each year, spending a per capita average of about $25 per American. (Although that's actually peanuts compared with the Swiss, the world's most voracious consumers of flowers, who spend $100 annually.)
But even the $6.2 billion spent in the US on flowers each year doesn't necessarily mean that American flower growers are kept busy. One hundred years ago, almost all the cut flowers sold in the US were grown here. Today, however, about 78 percent of our floral purchases are imports, mostly coming from Latin America.
That raises all kinds of questions that we don't necessarily ponder as we're busy dialing 1-800-FLOWERS.
First of all, there is the question of the environmental impact of burning airline fuel to fly so many natural items so far from their point of origin. (In the US, during the two weeks leading up to Valentine's Day, 12 to 15 million stems of Latin American flowers arrive each day at Miami International Airport.)
But even that thought aside, there remain questions about the ethics of buying a product produced by workers paid as little as $150 a month in countries that often permit the use of powerful pesticides that would not be allowed in the US.
However, Stewart is come not just to skewer the flower industry but rather to examine it, and this she does thoroughly and in highly readable prose. She visits a violet grower in California, a flower farm in Ecuador, and an auction house in Holland that sells 19 million flowers daily.
She explains the fascinating – albeit frustrating – work of breeders and hybridizers who still must respect certain of the limits of nature. (For as long as they've tried, no one has yet been able to make a blue rose.)
Of course, in a way, Stewart points out, none of this is really very new. She refers to a 2,000-year-old chunk of papyrus scribbled in Roman Egypt that shows a flower dealer scrambling to get the 1,000 roses needed to fill an out-of-season order. Zapping back up to the present, she praises the flower-selling practices of Costco (the fifth-largest retailer of flowers in the US) and offers a sympathetic view of the challenges faced by the modern florist.
It all makes for a "gosh-how-interesting- I-never-thought-about-that" kind of read, (perhaps not surprising, considering that this comes from a writer who dealt with another off-the-beaten-trail topic n "The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms").
At any rate, it's a book you just might want to pick up before Mother's Day.
• Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to Marjorie Kehe.