Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Flower Confidential (copy)

When I was little, I loved farm days with my grandfather, Papa. He raised steer and tobacco on acreage in Castalian Springs, Tennessee, west of Gallatin.

This particular year the tobacco was raised in a field adjacent to the road. Upon my arrival, I excitedly commented on the beautiful flowers. Papa let out a quick puff of air in disgust as he gruffly told me, “Flowers don’t make me money, leaves make me money.”

Here was my first lesson on manipulating plants. The flower buds are taken off tobacco plants to force leaf production. The official term is toppin’ and apparently my grandfather was behind. I would have loved to help; unfortunately, the plants were taller than my 10-year-old self.

Enter in Flower Confidential by Amy Stewart, which exposes the flower industry, thorn and all. “Each blossom is a unit of profit,” Stewart enlightens us as she pursues producers, all over the world, reporting on the cut-flower industry. An industry which isn’t as cutthroat as one might think, except Leslie Woodriff.

Stewart describes Leslie Woodriff as the, “last generation of true old-fashioned flower breeders.” Not your typical breeder, Woodriff sparsely kept records, cleaned his greenhouse, or watered his plants. Yet, this man discovered the “Star Gazer,” which revolutionized the lily business and made others rich.

Stewart not only educates readers by defining DIF and photoperiod, she provides historic background for favorites, such as violets, roses, and tulips. In one chapter, “How the Dutch conquered the World,” she quips the craziness surrounding tulip bulbs. In the 17th Century, Dutch florist might pay a couple thousand gilders for one bulb. Using the same amount during the period, one could purchase, “ordinary goods: several pigs, oxen, and sheep, a few tons of grain, tons of butter, barrels of beer, and a ship to carry them on.”

With each chapter, I kept thinking, “What are we losing by forcing plants to bloom?” Will flowers lose their scent because they no longer need bees to propagate their pollen? What about the Easter Lily which miraculously blooms Easter morning? That is, with the help from greenhouses controlling temperature, fertilization, and light deprivation.

Papa’s Easter Lily, with four, forced blooms in the church sanctuary, became 12 blooms in nature that following spring.