Colorado’s cut-flower industry has deep roots. Wheat Ridge was once the largest carnation producer in America, a status still commemorated in an annual festival. At one point, the Centennial State had over 100 cut-flower farms stretching from Wyoming south to Colorado Springs and east to Kansas.
But as off-shore flower farms with low labor costs bloomed in the ’80s, the cut-flower industry nearly left Colorado. Rather than full-blown flowers, farms focused on plugs, or small plants, that were then shipped out of state and grown in other locations. Today, the state’s cut-flower crop is about 10 percent of what it was during the farms’ peak production.
Still, seeds, bulbs and blooms are an essential business in the state. Professor Jim Klett is head of operations and gardening for Colorado State University’s Flower Trial Garden, where companies from around the world send about 1,000 varieties of seeds and cuttings annually for Klett and his crew to plant, grow and assess. The CSU Trial Garden studies flower performance, then releases the results to the public with recommendations for the year’s best bedding plants. And while Klett is picking winning flowers for the future, CSU also hosts a U.S. Department of Agriculture’s seed repository, storage for over a million seed and genomes as well as all sorts of flower material in case a species gets wiped off the planet, there’s a nuclear war…or a pandemic spreads.
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This spring has seen the largest documented demand ever for fresh-cut flowers. “There’s been research completed with patients in hospitals who’ve recovered faster if they were able to view some form of vegetation,” says Klett. “Other floral societies have documented that plant material brings something ‘alive’ to people that enhances their mental well-being.”
While the pandemic has increased demand for flowers, it’s also affected the CSU Trial Garden’s schedule.
“There are other trial gardens; nonetheless, we are the largest for the Rocky Mountains and high plains,” explains Klett. “It’s going to be interesting this year. We typically plant starting May 20, the entire lot of seeds.
This year, it will take much more time with the new restrictions. Peak time to visit the gardens is late July, regardless of how fast we plant.”
But is fast really the way we want flowers these days?
Every year, this country’s consumers spend between $7 and $8 billion on cut flowers; 80 percent of those originate from outside the country, in places like northern Europe, Africa, and Central and South America. During transportation, the refrigeration needs of delicate blooms result in massive amounts of carbon emission, the antithesis of the flower’s original intent.
Even so, on Mother’s Day, Denver saw big demand for orchids and birds of paradise rather than bouquets of colorful roses, snapdragons and decorative kale, scented with lavender and all grown locally.
We’ve embraced the slow food movement. Tourism has crawled to a snail’s pace, making slow travel the rule in these uncertain times. Yet the slow flowers movement has been slow to take off.
The slow flowers movement grew out of books by Debra Prinzing, an outdoor living expert and advocate for American flower farming, who published The 50 Mile Bouquet in 2012 and Slow Flowers in 2013.
“All of the reporting and writing I’ve done during the past decade originated with a single question: ‘Do you know where your flowers come from?’” Prinzing explains from her Seattle home.
“As a gardener, I raised many of the most beloved cut-flower varieties in my own yard, but I learned that the marketplace offered most florists and consumers little choice and poor labeling,” she says. “When I realized that consumers didn’t even know that many of the flowers they purchased were shipped to them from overseas, it sparked my campaign to change awareness and consumption practices.”
Her campaign led to speaking engagements, an online magazine and a popular podcast, Slow Flowers. It also prompted her to start a free, online directory of flower farms and florists. More than 700 members are listed in the Slow Flowers directory. That directory now includes twenty Colorado farms and florists, and the list is constantly expanding.
“Many factors have helped change attitudes about local, seasonal and ‘slow’ flowers,” Prinzing says.
A Growing Business
It’s been scientifically proven that the scent and sight of flowers make people happy, as does the actual flower-growing process. “Gardening is magical,” says Lily Morgan, CFO of Lily Farm Fresh Organics in Keenesburg. “To plant a seed and have it turn into a flower or tomato with just adding a little water and love is truly an amazing and healing experience — not just for you, but for the Earth and the world!”
It’s also been proven that flowers boost the economy. Local land and labor devoted to growing flowers cuts down on transportation costs and keeps sales and tax revenue in the area.
Blooms, a family-operated, specialty cut-flower grower in the Fort Collins area, is busier than ever these days. “The global flower supply chain has largely collapsed. A small bright spot for us has been that this offers the opportunity to step in and show floral designers how amazing buying locally can be,” explains co-owner Gaylene Moldt.
She and her sister-in-law, Gretchen Langston, operate the farm, which currently grows about four acres of flowers and ornamentals on two plots. “We nurture about 20,000 spring bulbs each year, close to 2,000 dahlias, and a huge ornamental pumpkin patch, among all of our other gorgeous flowers,” says Moldt.
Both Langston and Moldt are members of the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers, and their focus is on sales to floral designers throughout the state; however, they have a steadfast group of CSA regulars who’ve enjoyed Blooms flowers since the farm started a community-supported agriculture option.
“Flower farming used to be a significant industry in America, but that, like so many other industries, slowly turned into an import business,” explains Moldt. “We believe that knowing where your flowers come from and making buying decisions in a way that supports local small agriculture in the U.S. can be an action that contributes greatly to the entire ‘slow’ movement.”
And Moldt is happy to educate consumers to the joy of growing and buying local. “During this pandemic, we hold on to the fact that we grow something that can bring a bit of happiness to others,” she says. “This business feeds our souls.”
Meg McGuire has been a steadfast member of Prinzing’s Slow Flowers movement since she founded Red Daisy Farm in Brighton seven years ago. And finally this season, she’s noticed an increased interest in local flowers, thanks largely to her own CSA. “We had to switch models, like most businesses, this spring,” she says. “If I’d known the demand for local flowers, I would’ve started the Cut Flower Garden CSA shares sooner.”
Previously, 90 percent of Red Daisy Farm’s business was devoted to providing wholesale flowers for high-end events and curated bouquets and plants for gift stores such as the Ruffly Rose in Denver and Fiori Flowers in Boulder. But this spring, McGuire introduced a fresh-cut flower and home planter, piggybacking with neighboring Berry Patch Farms to offer a Flower Bouquet CSA.
Berry Patch has been offering a pick-your-own-community produce deal since 1994, and its customers loved the addition of Red Daisy flowers. That success has inspired future plans for McGuire’s business.
Picking Up the Pace
Area florists also have a new appreciation for local blooms, including the ease of acquisition and delivery.
“Spring blooms are at their peak with tulips and daffodils, ranunculus with extraordinary unusual varieties, Dutch freesia, hyacinth, novelty bearded iris and peonies peppered throughout most of the bouquets we have created in May for Mother’s Day and graduations,” says Cindy Ollig, owner of the Perfect Petal, which has locations in Highland and downtown Denver. “It’s a blessing in this economy of no weddings and events!”
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Prinzing, too, has noticed that the Slow Flowers movement has started to flower during the pandemic.
“I’m most inspired by the explosion of small-scale flower farms helping connect their communities with the fact that flowers are an important part of local agriculture,” she notes, “and by the changes among professional florists, shops and studios who care about sustainability because their customers do, too.”
Full speed ahead!