Amy Stewart’s Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers is an incredibly entertaining and informative book on an industry that most of us, well at least me, knew nothing about and pretty much took for granted. The cut flower industry has rich lessons in history, economics, botany, biology, international trade, and much more. Amy Stewart touches on not only all of these topics, but also many of the personalities involved in the breeding, growing, selling, and commodification of the raw materials that are the flowers in the beautiful bouquet in the supermarket.
You can immediately tell the depth of the research that went into writing this book. Stewart goes through interviews, company and patent records, scientific studies, diaries, journals, and many more primary sources to illustrate the innovations and changes in the flower industry in the last 400 years. Although the book doesn’t open with the Dutch flower industry, there is an early chapter on their beginning and developing what would become the modern flower trade. Now, cut flowers are grown throughout the world, especially in equatorial countries, but the importance of Dutch auctions, practices, and companies is made clear from the early chapters of this book. A delightful and concise description of tulip mania, the speculative bubble in the Dutch tulip market in the 17th century, is presented in economic, floral, and human terms. It’s amazing to think that cut flowers led to a financial crash similar to the subprime mortgage crash of 2008. In a similar fashion speculative wealth evaporated seemingly overnight.
Stewart traveled the world to write this book hitting many flower growing and distributing hotspots. She visits installations and interviews workers and managers all over the globe including operations in California, Holland, and Ecuador. During these travels she visits farms, trade shows, wholesalers, and even the cargo inspection area of the Miami airport, where 88% of roses enter the United States. At every interaction Stewart brings to life the people of the industry, from the CEOs of multinational agribusiness to hired hands in rural Ecuador to customs officers inspecting floral merchandise arriving in the United States.
Another topic this book covers in-depth is third party certification, which was a newer concept when this book was written in 2007, prior to Rainforest Alliance certified bouquets being available at most major grocery chains. Actually, the Rainforest Alliance isn’t even mentioned as a certifier in the book. When she made reference to a certifier it was VeriFlora, which is still prominent in the flower industry (although many consumers may not be familiar them, as Rainforest Alliance certifies everything from coffee to chocolate). Third party certification came as a result of needs, many needs. An exploited, underpaid, and under-protected workforce, a dearth of hazardous chemical use, including dipping cut flowers into dangerous fungicides and pesticides right before they are shipped and sold to customers who will more than likely stick their nose right into the bouquet to smell it, and chemical runoff into local waterways are all reasons why many consumers desire to have a way of knowing that the flowers they’re buying don’t contribute to these things. Stewart doesn’t hide the negative aspects of the industry, but rather reports on what growers are doing across the board, from exemplary to downright harmful. At the time of the books writing, it did seem that most larger flower producers were moving towards better labor and environmental practices. Let’s hope those changes keep happening.
Flower Confidential is informative and entertaining. It provides many facts but also touches on the magic and charm of flowers, and, more than anything else, captures the colorful personalities of flower growers, distributors, inspectors, wholesalers, retailers, and consumers. Her nonfiction style brings to mind Bill Bryson or Margaret Roach in that she provides accurate and well researched information, but with humor and storytelling flair. Even if gardening and flowers are not your thing, Flower Confidential is a delightful read!