You Know Slow Food. But Have You Heard About Slow Flowers?
Have you ever diverted from your budget at the grocery store by impulse-buying a bunch of flowers, only to get them home, put them in water, and find that you’re totally underwhelmed by their looks, smell, and lifespan? If the answer is yes, take solace in the fact that it’s not you. It’s a $34 billion global industry that often has flowers sitting for days on trucks and planes before they ever hit store shelves, not to mention homes. What’s more, 80 percent of these mass-produced flowers often come from outside the US and are grown using harsh chemicals and pesticides. They also consume tons of water and other resources, both while being grown and shipped around the world — not exactly what you want from something that’s supposed to brighten up your tabletop.
It’s hard to call something as ubiquitous as flowers a “trend,” but thanks to ultra-creative Instagrammers like Brittany Asch of Brrch Floral, Kelsie Hayes of Pop Up Florist, and The Cut editor Stella Bugbee’s @freakebana, plus our collective realization that our apartments look and feel a whole lot better with living things in them, avant-garde floral arranging is having a moment. But before you begin mixing those daisies with that baby’s breath, it’s worth considering where your flowers come from, and what that means.
One solution to the aforementioned ills of the flower industry is a growing movement built around the concept of “slow flowers.” You’ve likely heard of slow food and maybe even slow fashion, but what, you may be wondering, are slow flowers?
“At its simplest, it means enjoying flowers grown with sustainable farming practices, harvested in their natural season of bloom, sourced as close to you as possible, and produced by florists who are using green, chemical-free design techniques,” explains Debra Prinzing, a gardening writer who coined the term in 2013 in a book of the same name. “Slow flowers gives a name and terminology to what was once considered a ‘fringe’ or less-than-mainstream category in the floral marketplace,” she adds. Indeed, the Slow Flowers organization that Prinzing started after publishing the book, which includes a directory, podcast, and annual summit, currently has over 600 member floral growers, producers, and designers.
Obviously, it’s still a very small piece of an enormous industry, but as consumers become increasingly eco-conscious — according to a 2019 survey by CGS, one-third of consumers will pay up to 25 percent more for a sustainable product — the slow flower movement feels bound to grow. Especially when you consider that, in many instances, slow flowers are even less expensive than the alternatives.
One business supporting Slow Flower practices is Hometown Flower Co., a Long Island-based flower truck and digital florist opened this year by husband-and-wife duo Jaclyn Rutigliano and Marc Iervolino. In the absence of a physical store, Hometown does events and pop-ups with their flower-filled adapted pickup truck. They also do floral design for private events and offer weekly subscription boxes — in sizes ranging from 10 ($34) to 30 ($77) stems — on their website. It’s a diverse and innovative business model that ensures they’re never wasting any flowers, but are still accessible to a range of customers.
“We source directly from our farms. We control when we’re picking them up, we control when they’re being cut, and that means they’re in our fridge the very same day. For the most part, they’re getting to our customers within one to two days,” Rutigliano says. By contrast, she notes, Colombia exports one million red roses every Valentine’s Day season. Those roses travel from Central America to Miami, where they must go through customs before continuing on to their next destination. “They’ll get loaded up and be transported on a huge mack truck however many days it takes to get to New York. Then they get to a wholesaler, from where they might go to a florist, or they might sit there.”
When I first learned that this is the process most flowers — like the ones I send to my mom on Mother’s Day, or craft flower crowns with at wedding showers — undergo, I was shocked. So was Prinzing, when she first heard about it a decade ago. “It bothered me greatly that huge quantities of jet fuel was being used on a daily basis to ship a perishable product to the U.S., in order for American consumers to enjoy cheap flowers, while at the same time, the flower farmers I knew were struggling or were finding it hard to compete on price,” she recalls.
The thing is, if your heart is set on red roses — or any other specific bloom — unfortunately, the traditional, commercial way is still the best. Hometown and other slow flower businesses don’t have much control over what kind of flowers they get. It depends on seasonality and what the farms they work with have available. It’s like a farm-to-table restaurant; you don’t go there expecting a certain dish. You go in search of freshness, both literal and figurative. And for Rutigliano, working with whatever is available to her has been a boon creatively.
“It really resonates me from an artistic point of view to sort of challenge ourselves and be guided by what is in season locally with any arrangement that we make and sort of release all control about the sourcing to mother nature,” she explains.
When working with, for example, clients who are planning their weddings, Rutigliano is upfront about the fact that, while she can work within a given color scheme, she can’t guarantee the availability of specific flowers. For the couples who are okay with that, slow flowers can actually be a significantly cheaper alternative to working with a traditional florist. Part of this is because it’s cheaper to buy flowers that are in season, and part of this is because Hometown doesn’t price by individual stem, as many florists do. Some couples Rutigliano has worked with have also said they like it because they feel they simply “can’t make one more decision,” she laughs.
While it may not be a household term yet, the slow flower movement is becoming increasingly visible, especially among young people. Prinzing noes that over the past four years, according to Keyhole.co, #slowflowers has generated almost 171 million social media impressions, 15 million of which came over the 365 days.
“The response from young people in particular to our brand and our aesthetic and our mission has been so, so encouraging,” Rutigliano says, adding that over half of their weekly flower subscribers are millennials. “I do think there’s going to be [a] really big trend towards shifting away from just thinking about flowers for special events and starting to appreciate them for the fleeting natural beauty that they are in your own home.”
But just as the relatively recent push towards shopping local has given rise to very specific gastronomic obsessions — think Honeycrisp apples selling out like Popeyes chicken sandwiches, much to the chagrin of those unwilling to settle for a supposedly lesser variety of fruit -- as the collective yen for local flowers builds, it’s possible we will see similar micro-trends in the floral space. The point, of course, isn’t to fixate on specific flowers, whether they’re imported red roses or a more local harvest, but rather to appreciate (and be a patron of) the spontaneity of nature. And, fine, maybe also to finally become the type of person who always has fresh flowers around like it’s no big deal.