Slow Flowers: A Guide to Enjoying Blooms Thoughtfully
By Elena Seegers
Elena Seegers is the founder of Le Fleuriste New York, a bespoke, locally sourced floral styling service available by appointment. Le Fleuriste works closely with flower growers that promote growing practices guaranteeing the freshest, happiest and least traveled blooms possible from upstate New York, Long Island and New Jersey. These blooms are often made up of heirloom and unusual varieties, and incorporate unexpected edible elements and dramatic palettes.
Le Fleuriste uses flower food that is homemade and organic, abstains from using floral foam (which is generally made from plastic and hazardous components like formaldehyde), recycles its green waste using New York City’s organics collection compost program, and upcycles as much of its paper and ribbon packaging as possible.
Here, Elena shares her family’s history in the floral trade in London, the stark differences between the practices they were used to versus the industry standard today, and a modern approach to enjoying blooms thoughtfully.
My great grandma Julia and great aunt Jo owned a flower shop in the west of London. Every morning, they’d take the train to the Covent Garden market, when it was still north of the river, and buy the flowers for the shop. Their driver would come and pick them up, along with the day’s bounty. Mostly everything came straight from the nearby farms in the south of England. A french tulip would actually be from France- and the distance it had travelled, an appreciated luxury. Each bloom and their corresponding short season would mark the passage of the year. Anemones, my Nana recalled the other day, were often tiny, a testament to the English weather. She’d make little posies and lay them in the window, as they were too small to merit a bucket.
Back then, there was no question of flowers being flown around the world. Later, for the Queen’s coronation in 1953, Constance Spry had boxes of flowers flown in from countries around the commonwealth. It was an uncanny feat, and the flowers were carefully labeled, because for many of the florists working with Spry, it was the first time they saw exotic blooms, now so familiar in our bouquets.
In my Nana’s day, the image of the lone cow in the large green pasture and the plump hen in the farm yard were likely accurate depictions of the origin of the food available in the marketplace, as opposed to marketing devices used by the agriculture industry. Today, it’s definitely more difficult for consumers to know whether produce is in season or where it is from, because produce is perennially available to us regardless of these factors. We’re much more aware about our food now than we were 10 years ago, though, and have learned to look at the labels, to be more aware of where things come from. We have access to knowledge that can help us make educated choices about what we are buying, weighing quantity versus quality.
When it comes to the flower industry, however, it seems that the vast majority of consumers are still envisioning bright green pastures shared with farm animals, blooms picked that same morning from hedgerows and brought to the local market to be arranged hours later, and the like. If you’re getting flowers from your corner deli, nothing could be further from the truth. There are exceptions, but knowledge of the harsh conditions behind the production of the roses, baby’s breath, and gerbera from the local deli or supermarket will likely give you pause the next time you consider this kind of ubiquitous floral purchase.
Let’s consider geography for a second: the equatorial band that loops around the world - Colombia, Ecuador, Kenya, Ethiopia, Malaysia - is where the majority of your flowers come from, as advantageous trade agreements and tax breaks have made these countries major floral players. “Sushi, corpses and flowers” are the only fresh things in airplane cargo, it is said. Putting aside the carbon footprint for a moment, let’s focus on the women that constitute the vast majority of the labor force in industrial flower “farms” in this area of the world. The flower industry workers in this region generally face 15-hour days, and are subjected to a multitude of fungicides and pesticides used in order to get a perfect bloom from the Ecuadorian mountains to your corner deli. Fear of a single exotic fungi or pest coming into the country of arrival, combined with draconian measures if anything is found, encourages widespread, heavy-handed usage of chemicals on these flower farms. These farms are generally not regulated for safety - either chemically or on a human rights level. The results are disastrous to the health of workers and their children, not to mention the planet as a whole.
But there are alternatives! Being conscious of where you buy your flowers is key; by purchasing locally produced flowers, you are casting a vote that you’re not indifferent to ethically, economically, and ecologically harvested beauty. The Slow Flower Movement, like its more established relative the Slow Food Movement, advocates for locally grown and locally sold blooms. The movement’s website, www.slowflowers.com, is a great place to start when researching where to source local blooms. Another great resource is your local green market, where you can find freshly picked branches or flowers, and flowering herbs that make a lovely and useful addition to the household for the week. You can put what you haven’t used in the freezer before it goes over for fresh herbs on demand.
And lastly - there are labels. Although not necessarily certifying local provenance, they guarantee that some kind of control has been put in place in the flower production process. These labels are similar to those found on food - examples include Ecocert, Veriflora, and Fair Trade Certified - and all mean a step in the right direction for both the blooms and those that pick and package them.
If you’d like to take matters into your own hands, creating a rooted nasturtium bowl is a great way to compose an edible arrangement that lasts on your table well past a specific holiday or event. The amazing thing about this plant is that it will live in water for weeks - even months and years if you look after it well. The plant will carry on flowering all summer, and both the stunning flowers and leaves are edible, making a peppery addition to your salad. You can grow your own very easily from seed, or find small plants at your local green market, nursery, or even DIY store. Instead of nasturtium, you can also use cilantro, basil, or small strawberry plants, to name but a few.
To start, you’ll need 6 small nasturtium plants (or other small herbs or strawberries), a pedestal bowl, and water. I thrifted the pedestal bowl pictured; you can also use a glass bowl and a cake stand for a bit of extra height.
First, take your small plants and carefully unpot them. Remove the soil around them whilst keeping as much of the root system as possible intact. Place the plants in a bowl of cool water and rinse off the excess soil - you may need to switch out the water a couple of times. Once the roots are clean, pick up all your plants by the roots and twist the roots gently together as if collecting your hair into a bun. Then, flip and place in your bowl. Fluff the leaves to make the composition to your taste, and voila! Don’t forget the best part- give it to your Nana!
Elena was photographed in New York City by J.E. Molly Seegers. She is wearing The Zady Collection .06 Lightweight Alpaca Sweater in Charcoal throughout.