Cape West Coast Biosphere Reserve in South Africa.

How the Flower Industry is Wilting the Planet

Words by Liana DeMasi

photographs by alice mann

Flowers are big business—but the cost of commercial flower farms to our environment is even greater. What’s the alternative?

Just last month, I found myself at a plant store in Brooklyn. I was headed to a housewarming party and had, rather predictably, forgotten to get a gift. Wandering towards the back, past the bouquets of dried flowers and the boldly-colored candle sticks, I saw a table labeled: Collector Plants. There was a white-speckled, green-leafed plant named Aglaonema “World of Heritage,” which is native to China, listed for $140. Next to it, sat a Philodendron “Strawberry Shake,” native to the Caribbean, for $200. It felt both disturbing and predictable to find a table filled with plants stolen from their native land in a gentrified neighborhood in Brooklyn. One look at the commercial plant industry explains just why that is.

 

Walk past any corner grocery store or bodega, and you’re bound to see rows of plastic pots holding plastic-wrapped bouquets of flowers. Peonies, roses, sunflowers, tulips, and daisies are all plucked, packaged, and sent to various shops around the world, where they are unpacked, re-wrapped, and sold. In 2022, the commercial florist industry alone is expected to grow by 1.8% to $6 billion by the end of the year.

 

The cost to the climate, however, is also huge. Take roses as an example. Most U.S. shops purchase their roses from warmer climates in South America, while Europeans buy theirs from Africa. After being reared abroad, they’re cut and placed in temperature-controlled boxes and vehicles before finding themselves on shelves for consumer purchase. On Valentine’s Day alone, this process produces around 9,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. There may be a certain romanticism—or even a feeling of self-care—around buying a bouquet of flowers, but with the climate repercussions in mind, a full vase on the kitchen table or a “Collectors Plants” display can easily turn sinister.

Wildflower fields outside Clanwilliam in South Africa.
Wildflower fields outside Clanwilliam in South Africa.

Native Plants Die, Mutant Flowers Bloom

There are nearly 10,000 endangered plant species compared to nearly 6,000 in the animal kingdom, according to the International Union of Conservation Nature’s Red List. Yet, the former category doesn’t receive the same coverage as the latter. In other words: we care much more about the declining monarchs than we do the endangered milkweed they depend upon. Every aspect of our world is connected.

 

Thus, when a plant is added to the endangered list, it’s indicative of a declining habitat for an animal species. Overdevelopment, deforestation, a changing climate, and the commercial flower industry all work to derail what is growing naturally and natively. These imbalances and disturbances shift our ecosystem and disrupt food chains and life cycles. The extinction of native plants is particularly harrowing and dangerous, since we lose food, breathable air, and their carbon capture capabilities as numbers continue to decline.

Overdevelopment, deforestation, a changing climate, and the commercial flower industry all work to derail what is growing naturally and natively.

Liana DeMasi

Sue Bergh, an organizer and board member of the Clanwilliam Wildflower Show, an annual celebration of South Africa’s wild foliage and those dedicated to conserving it, tells me one of her favorite flowers is the African Lily. I ask her what it would mean to her if the African Lily went extinct. “If it were no longer around, it would mean the world is in dire straits,” she said. “All of these things are litmus tests for our own ability to be on this Earth, so if they are disappearing then they’re indicators that it’s going to be tough for us as well.”

 

Simply put, when wildflower foliage is plentiful and healthy, our ecosystems flourish. Insects are able to pollinate, feed, and lay their eggs in the native plants they have evolved to depend upon. The animals that eat those insects have plenty of feeding ground. The continuation of vegetation and animal populations give us humans sustenance, and the cycle continues. But the eradication of native plants leaves the regions they’re endemic to in a state of shock, confusion, and loss, as once-dependent species are forced to migrate or die off.

Cape West Coast Biosphere Reserve in South Africa.
Cape West Coast Biosphere Reserve in South Africa.
The Clanwilliam Wild Flower Show, which aims to conserve, protect and study the wild flowers and natural flora of local areas.

This is why organizations like Wild Seed Project are working to repopulate native plant species in the Northeastern United States. Their founder, Heather McCargo, has a decades-long career in horticulture and ecology, but it was the sheer amount of exotic and clone plants in commercial nurseries that drove her to create the Wild Seed Project in 2014.

 

“It’s like fashion,” she tells me. “Even if [nurseries] sell a native plant, it’s based on how it looks, not the ecological resilience of the plant.” She goes on to describe a “double flower,” which is a mutation that turns the stamen and pistil to more petals, limiting the plant only to its beauty. “These gardeners and sellers love them because they bloom and bloom and bloom, but it’s really a cruel trick for the insect pollinators and birds because there’s nothing there for them.”

The Clanwilliam Wild Flower Show, which aims to conserve, protect and study the wild flowers and natural flora of local areas.
The Clanwilliam Wild Flower Show, which aims to conserve, protect and study the wild flowers and natural flora of local areas.
Pam Engelbrecht, who helped create and maintain the flower installations inside the church as part of The Clanwilliam Wild Flower Show.

Because these mutants lack pollen and nectar, they don’t produce seeds, which makes them prime candidates for cloning. The end result of those lab processes are a plethora of native plants with none of the ecological benefits. McCargo goes on to say that, unless you can buy from a wildflower nursery or grower that’s vetted by an ecological organization, it’s best to repopulate your property or region by purchasing seeds or juvenile plants. “It might be tempting to buy larger trees or plants,” she said. “But it’s not ecological. Trees spend the first years of their lives putting a healthy root system down. With commercial nurseries, those roots are often treated or artificially chemicalized, which doesn’t produce a healthy system.”

 

By defamiliarizing native plants to their ecosystem and vice versa, the commercial flower industry—and us, as consumers—are hastening the extinction of native species in our respective areas.

Shifting Mindsets, Building Community

But, even if we were to swap the commercial flower market for a wildflower-centric one, one that’s focused on meeting the present consumer’s steady desire for foliage in their homes, we still run the risk of ecological alienation.

 

First off—the mass production of anything desensitizes us from our world. In the case of flowers, wild or not, producing them en masse inevitably means that most of us will fail to bear witness to the processes that go into growing or making them. This desensitization works to separate us even further from the land and its many gifts. Rather, our inability to see how engrossed the flower industry is in capitalism means that we don’t see what is reaped from land as blessings, but instead, as possessions.

“It’s like fashion. Even if [nurseries] sell a native plant, it’s based on how it looks, not the ecological resilience of the plant.”

Heather McCargo
Founder, Wild Seed Project

Instead, as McCargo suggests, individuals can purchase seeds rather than mature plants to help repopulate regions and create a beautiful landscape, while yielding higher results. This process relies on intentionality and patience, two qualities that are hard to come by in a world that demands instant gratification. However, it is in the pointed consideration of our foliage—from seed to bud to fully grown plant—that we might begin to create the space for love that the Earth requires. Moreover, eradicating the practice of commercial cloning or the selling of exotic plants can also help mitigate ecosystem disruption.

 

These solutions aren’t limited to sustainable wildflower-rearing. Mindfulness and a community-oriented nature are also important lessons for the commercial flower industry, which continues to accelerate in pace and profit—especially as a new generation of consumers, who increasingly identify as “plant parents,” continue to turn to for-profit stores for their plant and flower needs.

The Wildflower Garden in the Ramskop Nature Reserve in South Africa.
Joanny Boer, whose family created the The Wildflower Garden, removing wildflower seeds by hand to pack and sell them to visitors.
Boer also adds the seeds to archive she has created over the past two years.

Bergh goes on to tell me that the Clanwilliam Wildflower Show, which has been going on since the 1970s, is a beautiful display of a vast variety of native plants. “The entire community comes together to put on this show. It is the most massive community operation that welds us all together,” Bergh says. “It’s quite fantastic.” Aimed at local and international education, the event hopes to highlight the importance of endemic species in our global ecosystem, so that we might all work together to save our native species, our plants, and each other.

 

There might not be an easy path that leads to a wildflower industry replacing our present commercial one, mostly because the industrialization of anything works to erode its meaning. In other words, the capitalism inherent in the flower industry turns what is living into a commodity, foliage into an object to be possessed. Perhaps, the first step towards progress is shifting the mindset of the global flower industry to see plants, not as products, but as they really are: members of our community.

Cape West Coast Biosphere Reserve in South Africa.
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