Seven years ago, when Emma and Alexia Kelsey opened their floral business, Kindred Blooms, they didn’t think much about where the flowers they worked with came from or what the blooms had been sprayed with.
Then Alexia got pregnant. The sisters did some research and were shocked at what they found out, Emma said. They decided to look for chemical-free plant material and to buy as much locally as possible.
Their goal was made easier by the Twin Cities Flower Exchange, a St. Paul flower market that opened in 2017. The exchange, which sells only to wholesalers, deals in flowers and plant material from 19 chemical-free growers in the region. The 80 buyers range from local floral giant Bachman’s to smaller businesses such as Kindred Blooms.
Exchange owner and founder Christine Hoffman is driven by her conviction that the floral industry should be greener. Her dedication and the resulting growth of the exchange are partly why the third annual Slow Flowers Summit will be held in St. Paul on July 1 and 2.
The gathering, expected to draw up to 150 people, focuses on supporting American flower farmers by using local flowers in season.
Debra Prinzing, the Seattle writer who founded Slow Flowers, compares the movement to the drive for local food.
“This is a way for people to advocate for slower, sustainable, seasonal, mindful ways to have flowers in their lives,” she said. “It’s about who grew it, and is it in season. … If you can’t buy local, at least buy from growers in the U.S.”
The floral industry is international, with an estimated 80% of cut flowers coming from South America. Growing facilities outside the U.S. tend to be less regulated and use more pesticides and chemicals, and the carbon footprint of shipping flowers from Colombia is considerably higher than shipping from California.
The slow flower movement encourages buying even closer to home, if possible.
The first wholesale local flower market opened in Seattle in 2011. Now there are about 15 similar markets around the country, Prinzing said.
Flowers shipped from overseas are chilled and cut up to seven days before they get here, she said. When local flowers are cut, they’re immediately put in buckets of water, so they’re fresher, last longer and retain their scent.
Buying local doesn’t mean that what you buy is chemical-free, Prinzing cautioned. However, farmers who sell to the Twin Cities Flower Exchange do not use pesticides.
“That is our business model, and that is my personal conviction,” said Hoffman, who had a floral business before she started the exchange. She said she is committed to reducing waste in the floral industry overall, from not using foam blocks to hold flower arrangements in place to finding ways to reuse flowers by giving wedding bouquets to organizations that send them to hospices and other locations.
While the Slow Flowers Summit is aimed at the industry, there are ways for consumers to be mindful in their flower buying. Prinzing said consumers should visit farmers markets, and ask growers about their farming practices.
Slow Flowers has a searchable website to find local flower sources (slowflowers.com), and the Twin Cities exchange website lists florists that buy plant material from the market (tcflowerexchange.com/buyers-pass).
Changing public perception about buying local is key to making progress, Hoffman said. Americans are used to getting any flower they want on any day of the year. She recommends that people think seasonally.
Some Minnesotans who get married in the winter are finding locally produced dried flowers to be an attractive alternative to imported fresh flowers.
“People should ask their florist or wedding designer if they use local flowers,” Hoffman said. “The quality of local products is very good. … This is a lot about adjusting expectations, working with new materials, looking at things differently.”
Hoffman publishes seasonal lists of the products the exchange will have, to help clients plan for the year. She said she’s continually experimenting with local greenery to substitute for tropical plants, and testing how long cut plant materials last in water.
Web pages of local florists who are using material from the exchange show adventuresome arrangements using flowers such as columbine, verbascum and flowering branches of shrubs such as ninebark, the maroon leaves a sharp contrast to the white flowers.
Much of Kindred Blooms’ business is for weddings, Emma Kelsey said. The Hopkins-based business orders from the exchange and a couple of local farms, as well, and each week gets a shipment from a California grower.
Having the Twin Cities Flower Exchange deal with farmers and provide lists of available products week-by-week made the leap to using more local flowers much less risky, she said, because the bigger inventory means it’s much less likely that there will be a dearth of flowers because of bad weather.
“I can tell [Hoffman] I need a certain kind of dahlia or peony, or I need 15 bundles of floaty flowers that can go in bouquets of a certain color, and she arranges it,” she said. “A huge part of what makes the exchange successful is” Hoffman.
Weddings are tradition-bound, and she said she treads carefully when she talks to customers about flower choices. “You do the best you can do, but at the end of the day you have to satisfy your client,” she said. “It’s pretty rare for a bride to come to us with that environmentally sensitive mind-set. But as wedding vendors, it’s our responsibility to steer them in another direction without guilting them out.”
So she tells them that if she’s buying local, they’re getting the freshest flowers possible, with no plastic use. Fresh flowers look better and last longer. A peony chilled for use in July will fall apart quickly because it was in dry storage; a flower in season will look great for days.
“We establish early on if they’re open to suggestion, tell them what’s available, play around with color and texture and talk about getting the freshest flowers locally and supplementing that with the classic standards that they love,” she said. “Using things from the state you’re getting married in has a seamless way of melding the outside and the inside, and doesn’t seem as forced as an arrangement of foreign flowers.
“It creates a casual, intimate feeling that is hard to replicate with something else.”
Mary Jane Smetanka is a Minneapolis freelance writer and a Hennepin County master gardener.