Bursting into flower: the growth of sustainable blooms | Wild flowers

Greg Stevens

Close to the River Teme, in the shadow of the Malvern Hills, with three farm cats playing around our feet, Meg Edmonds is showing me around an old barn that she uses to store, arrange and wrap her flowers. It is busy with colour and life. There are tulips of every shade in crates, narcissi and ranunculi in buckets and vases. There are pots of snakeshead fritillary just outside the door, and a vase of blue and white anemones by the window, in water, so that Edmonds can make a note of how many times they open and close in the sun before they’re over. “I want to be able to tell people that information,” she says. They’re currently on number four. She pulls out a huge green stem that looks as if it has been ripped out of Jurassic Park. It turns out to be from an artichoke plant. There are dried artichokes elsewhere, their fluffy innards bursting out, to be used in dried arrangements over winter. We walk around the farm. Edmonds points out shrubs and trees that have ended up in her work, from a sumptuous trailing rosemary bush to the flowering branches of a crab apple tree.

Everything here is useful. It has also been grown within walking distance, either on the family farm, or on a patch of land next to the farm shop, at the other end of the village, where Edmonds’s flowers sell in big, beautiful bunches. Edmonds and her husband farm livestock and vegetables on his family farm (they are third generation), and converted to organic practices 20 years ago. After moving away from selling the farm’s livestock to supermarkets, in favour of selling in their own farm shop, she started to think that there might be a way of doing the same for flowers. “I didn’t realise that there was this burgeoning market for local seasonal, mixed, beautiful things, like I had in my garden and like my friends raved over,” she says.

‘You’d go to the market and you’d never see flowers’: Rachel Siegfried.
‘You’d go to the market and you’d never see flowers’: Rachel Siegfried. Photograph: Jooney Woodward/The Observer

Now she does arrangements for funerals, and occasionally for weddings, as well as the bunches in the shop and at farmers’ markets. Flowers are often at the centre of life’s biggest turning points, from birth to marriage to death, but, until recently, few would have asked questions about where those flowers came from and what the cost might be, beyond the price tag. “We ask our farmers to address these questions,” she says. Now, we can find out if meat or veg is organic, and where it was grown, and when. “But we don’t look at the most obvious thing, in the middle of our table, which is the bunch of flowers.”

Flowers are big business in Britain: 50{f32667846e1257729eaaee80e922ba34a93c6414e9ad6261aff566c043b9e75d} of British households bought cut flowers in 2021. The pandemic disrupted growers and florists, both logistically and when events, such as weddings, ground to a halt, but people still bought flowers to stay connected to family members and friends. The mail-order company Bloom & Wild announced in 2021 that it had doubled its sales during the first year of the pandemic, with customers ordering flowers to send to loved ones as “somewhat of a substitute for a hug”.

But according to Defra, only 14{f32667846e1257729eaaee80e922ba34a93c6414e9ad6261aff566c043b9e75d} of cut flowers sold in the UK are grown in Britain. The remaining 86{f32667846e1257729eaaee80e922ba34a93c6414e9ad6261aff566c043b9e75d} come from the Netherlands, or from warmer countries, such as Ecuador, Kenya and Ethiopia. In 2016, the National Farmers’ Union released an extensive report into the cut-flower industry in the UK, pointing out that the value of British cut flowers has remained largely the same since the late 1980s, rising from £79m in 1988 to £82m in 2015, while the value of imported flowers rose almost sixfold over that same period, from £122m to £666m. Supermarkets sell “seasonal” flowers, such as roses in February, without much explanation as to which country’s season that is, though it is safe to assume that roses are unlikely to be thriving in the cold British winter months.

‘The whole system could be worked differently’: Olivia Wilson.
‘The whole system could be worked differently’: Olivia Wilson. Photograph: Jooney Woodward/The Observer

“It’s the one thing that just doesn’t cross people’s minds in the same way as it does with food and fashion,” says Olivia Wilson, a florist and grower who co-founded the SSAW Collective, a community of chefs, florists and growers, which advocates for progressive change in the food and flower industries. “For many years now, people have been able to get roses all year round, but that doesn’t reflect what true seasonality means. We’ve got the opportunity to have flowers that are seasonal and grown in the UK, from April to October or even November. The whole system could be worked differently to ensure that flowers are available, but in ways that are helpful to the environment rather than damaging.”

While establishing the true carbon footprint of cut flowers is complex and requires a great many intricate factors to be taken into consideration, from growing conditions to climate to transportation and beyond, there is a simple way to hedge bets when it comes to what is best for the environment. “Buying from a local farmer is the most sustainable thing you can do,” says Edmonds.

There are a growing number of local farmers to choose from. Flowers from the Farm, a non-profit organisation that was established in 2011, has doubled its membership over the past three years, and now works with more than 1,000 independent British growers. (Its website allows you to search for your nearest local flower farmer.) Many grow organically, peat-free and without pesticides, and use paper wrapping rather than plastic. I spoke to several of their members, and they all said that demand for their flowers had exploded. Partly, they put this down to a growing awareness of the environmental impact of the cut-flower industry. Much like food and fashion, there is an appetite for information about provenance and a desire to spend money more ethically, where possible. And in part, there is an aesthetic appeal, helped along by social media, and a trend towards a more bohemian, “garden-gathered” look, that finds beauty in less-than-straight ranunculi stems, for example, or more unusual varieties of flowers and foliage that a local farmer might specialise in.

‘For a lot of people, it’s about connecting with the community’: Michelle Owen.
‘For a lot of people, it’s about connecting with the community’: Michelle Owen. Photograph: Sam Pelly/The Observer

In 2008, after working as a designer and gardener in private gardens for many years, Rachel Siegfried established Green and Gorgeous in Oxfordshire, a farm over two acres that has flower fields, orchards, vegetable and herb beds, and chickens. She also teaches in-demand courses on floriculture and floristry, which regularly sell out. “There was the slow-food movement, and the farmers’ markets were going strong, and people loved buying their locally grown veg, but you’d go to the market and you’d never see flowers,” she recalls. “I could count on one hand the number of people I know who were doing it in the UK.” She suspects people just didn’t know where cut flowers came from, and in the early days of setting up as a grower, she struggled to find florists who would take her produce. “I really tried. I went around all my local florists with a van full of beautiful flowers. But they didn’t want to know. I remember one having a huge go at me about ants on the peonies,” she laughs.

Why didn’t they want to know then, when they do now? “They knew my flowers would be more expensive. And they also knew I could not guarantee consistent supply,” Siegfried explains, though she says Brexit has made importing flowers more costly. Farming in Britain has its particular demands and complications, of course, and that applies to flowers, too. The climate is unpredictable, and global warming has exacerbated its unpredictability. When we spoke, in early April, Siegfried had just had a -5C frost. “When I’m teaching, one of the main things I say is that you must manage your customers’ expectations, because you can’t manage the weather.” If she is supplying a wedding, she never promises a specific flower. “I’m very cagey. I try to work with people’s colours. Because of course, at this time of year, flowering time can change by up to a month.”

‘We don’t look at the most obvious thing, in the middle of our table, which is the bunch of flowers’: Meg Edmonds.
‘We don’t look at the most obvious thing, in the middle of our table, which is the bunch of flowers’: Meg Edmonds. Photograph: Izzy de Wattripont/The Observer

Anaïs Carrillo-Hawkins is entering her first full season as a grower. A Mexican-American woman, originally from Texas, she had been looking for land to start her own flower farm ever since she moved to the UK 11 years ago. She studied horticulture in Texas and has a family background in farming, but worked in the charity sector for a number of years, for Unicef and Save the Children. During the pandemic, she made the decision to set up Dulce and Flor, combining flower farming and her other passion, baking. The land she farms, in the Chilterns, has its own microclimate, she explains, and one of the biggest challenges has been learning to deal with the local wildlife. As we speak she spots a red kite, which stops her in her tracks: she explains that it could mean that the kite has spotted a mouse.

“It’s been a real learning curve, despite having a background in horticulture,” she says. “It’s pretty high risk. In Texas, we had hurricanes that would come in during the summer months, all through your main cropping season. But here it seems as if climate change is getting even harder to predict. When you’re working with clients, it’s hard to predict when your crop is going to be ready to sell to them.” Imports are probably more reliable, she admits. But buying locally, and seasonally, is about far more than a guarantee of uniform arrangements.

Carrillo-Hawkins is adamant that the benefits far outweigh the problems. “I just really love having that conversation with the client,” she says. “The flowers I’m harvesting from my field will last so much longer than imported flowers, as they haven’t been sprayed. I think the environmental aspect of purchasing from a local farm far exceeds the click-and-collect demand of imported flowers that you can get from wholesalers.”

Blooming marvellous: flower selection from Anaïs Carrillo-Hawkins.
Blooming marvellous: flower selection from Anaïs Carrillo-Hawkins. Photograph: Jooney Woodward/The Observer

She also points out that the “garden-gathered” trend means that local suppliers may have an advantage, as they can provide unusual flowers that might not travel well via cargo or freight. “It’s just so beautiful to see those flowers gracing tables, like bearded irises. A lot of those conversations are about memories that people have, of their grandparents having a bungalow with irises, and the different colours. I just really like that avenue, to get people to connect through flowers, to the environment, by having these conversations with complete strangers.”

Many of the growers I spoke to sell locally and get to know their customers. “For a lot of people, it’s about connecting with their community,” explains Michelle Owen. Prior to the pandemic, she was an interior decorator and wallpaper designer, but in lockdown, she and her family moved from inner city Bristol to Bridport in Dorset, gaining a much bigger garden in the process.

“Last summer I started growing dahlias, zinnias, all seasonal stuff, and I ended up giving away so many bunches to people, friends and neighbours. And they all loved them, and said, ‘I wish we could get flowers like this in the shops.’” She subsequently set up Flower Coast Garden, and is in her first season of growing; she will offer local subscriptions and sell within the area, using paper to wrap bunches, rather than plastic. “You know, when you get a beautiful bunch of flowers from the garden, they smell amazing,” she says. “The ones in the supermarket just don’t smell the same.”

Often, though not always, buying flowers from a local grower will be more expensive than a bunch of daffodils from the supermarket. This turns flowers into a treat, a luxury, and right now, for many, those indulgences may be few and far between.

At her farm in Worcestershire, Edmonds urges me to smell the flowers. They have a different, much more vibrant aroma to anything you could find at the supermarket. A lily-flowered tulip smells like oranges. “Isn’t it gorgeous?” she says. Before I leave, I buy a bunch of huge red tulips from the farm shop, 10 stems for £15, for a friend’s birthday that weekend. I had seen where they came from, and the love and work that went into growing them. Each one was as big as the palm of my hand. Several days later, my friend sent me a picture. They were still going strong, and they were gorgeous.

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