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Stop, and smell the cut flowers

Special to The Times

“FLOWER Confidential,” a behind-the-scenes look at the cut flower industry, can be found in the gardening section of bookstores, but author Amy Stewart says it is not a gardening book.

“It’s the opposite of a garden book,” she says. “It’s about how cut flowers are not the flowers we grow in the garden.”

For the record:

12:00 a.m. March 15, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday March 13, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Arborist’s name: A March 8 Home section profile of garden writer Amy Stewart misspelled the last name of Bay Area arborist Ted Kipping as Keeping.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 15, 2007 Home Edition Home Part F Page 5 Features Desk 0 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Arborist’s name: A March 8 profile of garden writer Amy Stewart misspelled the last name of Bay Area arborist Ted Kipping as Keeping.

In the new release, subtitled “The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers,” Stewart travels the globe to rose megagrowers in Latin America and flower auctioneers in the Netherlands. She discovers that every rose leaving greenhouses in Ecuador is dipped in a fungicide banned for use on live plants in the U.S. She learns that a flower’s energy can be devoted to longevity or to fragrance, and with shelf life so highly prized in stores, modern blooms rarely have much scent. And for those who have wondered why they’re allowed only two pieces of checked luggage? She writes that the plane might need room in its belly for millions of flowers.

Cut flowers are part of the global marketplace, after all, and Stewart prompts shoppers to think hard about where their stems come from and how they got to market. The book may just get readers to see bouquets in a whole new light.

Earlier this week, speaking from a Denver stop on a book tour that brings her to Descanso Gardens tonight, Stewart reflected on how globalization has changed the cut-flower industry, especially in Southern California.

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Although one of the biggest growers of cut flowers in the U.S. is the Sun Valley Group (with farms in Oxnard), other regional growers have been devastated by the rise of farms in Latin America, where land and labor are cheap. Southern California, which had an edge because of its mild climate and long growing season, no longer can compete in roses, carnations or chrysanthemums. Growers have to be creative, looking for crops that can’t be raised on foreign super-farms.

“Local growers have more costs and more regulatory oversight than Latin American growers,” Stewart says. “They can often produce interesting varieties you won’t get as an import -- sweet peas and dahlias and other wonderful seasonal varieties.”

Consumers here, she says, live in cut-flower heaven, with high-end florists creating arrangements with exotic specimens that aren’t available elsewhere. “It’s one of best places to be as a flower consumer, along with Miami and maybe New York,” she says. “There are lots of locally grown flowers, tropicals and orchids directly flown in from Latin America and Hawaii.”

She describes a newly bred rose, ‘Full House,’ which has chartreuse petals with the finest fringe of red. “It’s the most exquisite rose I’ve ever seen,” she says. “It was grown in California and bred to open more fully before harvested. If there is such a thing as a luxury flower, L.A. will have it.”

Even the local supermarkets have much to offer.

“I was at a Ralphs, and the flowers in the store were labeled according to what country they come from, with a Veriflora certification [attesting to environmental and social responsibility], a freshness date so you can pick the most recent and a vase life guarantee. The older flowers were on a separate rack and were knocked down in price,” Stewart says. “This is a very sophisticated way to sell flowers for a grocery store. And Ralphs isn’t the only one. Others are beginning to get onboard with environmental issues.”

STEWART, 37, a Texas native with a tomboy face and a voice sharp with clarity, lives in Northern California with her husband, the publisher of a website devoted to book collecting. She writes about garden issues for various media, so when she laments the prosaic existence of most garden writers, she knows what she’s talking about.

“They get shunted to home decorating, but gardening is about how we interact with the plant kingdom and it’s vitally important, not like decorating with pillows and candles, or giving five easy container tips for fall,” says Stewart, who singles out author Michael Pollan (“The Botany of Desire”) for elevating the genre. “I feel strongly that garden writing deserves a better place in the literary world than it gets.”

The California Horticultural Society singled her out, bestowing its 2005 Writing Award for her book “The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms.” Ted Keeping, a Bay Area arborist and horticulturalist who was on the awards committee, says Stewart connects with readers.

“Many of the other books we considered were quite wonderful, but hers stood out for me not only because of its engaging style but because it looked at something that not enough people look at,” he says. “It hit me at so many different levels.”

Like Pollan, Stewart is happy to reach people who never thought of picking up a trowel. Her first column, written in 1996 for a now-defunct newspaper in Santa Cruz, was about magazines’ picture-perfect gardens that never have a weed, a pest or a blade of grass out of place. Her thesis was that such gardens make ordinary gardeners feel insecure in the way that models in fashion magazines can make a woman feel insecure about her “real” body.

She wishes garden writers would ditch their traditional approach and present subjects in personal, opinionated ways. An article by a colleague questioning the use of the American flag as a garden ornament -- a piece that appeared on a group blog that Stewart participates in called Garden Rant -- was right on the mark, she says.

It engendered passionate debate on the website because it touched on an issue people care about. In the drive to provide how-to content, she says with worry, garden writers miss the opportunity to write about anything fun.

Stewart grew up wanting to write, and considers herself more a writer who gardens than a gardener who writes. Her first book, the 2001 release, “From the Ground Up,” was about creating her first garden and stemmed from her natural curiosity rather than any formal horticultural training.

She says the author who inspires her most is “Charlotte’s Web” creator E.B. White, whose essays occupy a permanent place by her bedside. Another favorite is Sue Hubbell, whose “A Book of Bees: And How to Keep Them” walks a tightrope, linking personal narrative with just enough science and botany so the reader can follow. “Good nonfiction is about storytelling,” Stewart says.

The challenge, of course, is figuring out what story to tell. Flowers are a huge industry, so she immediately started to simplify. She looked for individual plants that would tell a bigger story and people who were willing to show her around and share their secrets.

“A lot of people said no outright,” she says. “Dole Food has moved into flowers and farms in Colombia, and they said no. Whole Foods said no, and that surprised me. If people turned me down, I either moved on or found another way to talk about them.”

Then there are the people who said, “Absolutely, come to my farm, talk to my workers, how can I help?” Says Stewart: “Lots of people in the flower industry are proud of what they’re doing.”

home@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The hunt for better blossoms

Amy Stewart leads a program tonight on how to make cut flowers last longer, how to grow them organically and how to get plants to bloom at a certain time. The lecture and a wine-and-cheese reception run from 7 to 9 p.m. at Descanso Gardens in La Canada Flintridge. Admission is $18 to $20, and registration is recommended: (818) 949-7980. Stewart says Southern Californians have an unusually wide selection of cut flowers and good florists. Among her favorites:

Sherman Oaks: Stewart says Jasmine Blue, owned by Dokhi Mirmirani has a lush, spicy style. She’s sought-after among people in the entertainment industry, but anyone can drop into her shop and get something interesting and surprising.

Venice: “I like Scentiments because they work with these unexpected shapes, putting flowers in boxes, bowls, etc.,” Stewart says. Go to www.scentimentsflowers.com and click on seasons. “Most of us are too intimidated to cut off long stems and put tulips or orchids in a tight little cube, but they do it so well and it makes the flowers look like jewels.”

Los Angeles: She calls Tic-Tock a couture florist, “the kind of place you’d go for a really over-the-top arrangement that makes a big statement.” Example: Go to www.tictock.com/gifts.html and click on the arrangement in the lower left. “OK, it’s $850,” Stewart says. “But wow! I want one!”

Beverly Hills: Stewart knows L.A. Premiere Floral Design Studio by reputation. “It’s very well known for lush wedding flowers.”

Online: For ideas, she also suggests the Southern California wholesaler Florabundance, which does not sell to the public but whose website, www.florabundance.com, is “fantastic and inspiring.”

-- Suzanne Mantell


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