The Slow Flowers movement embraces local sourcing for cut flowers along with seasonality and sustainability. It’s having an impact on how flowers are grown and marketed worldwide—but not in the way you might expect. Yes, it is giving a big boost to small, local flower farms. But it also influences the global flower trade as an accelerator and amplifier of current trends.
By Bruce Wright
You’ve heard of “slow food” (versus “fast food”): it’s another way of talking about food that is both locally and sustainably produced.
Originating in Italy, the slow-food movement has become well established internationally. In the United States, many restaurants and grocery stores now tout locally supplied produce. The movement has created a fast-growing niche market that lends support to smaller-scale, local farms.
In 2013, the Seattle-based journalist Debra Prinzing published a book called Slow Flowers; in the following year, she launched the online directory SlowFlowers.com, followed by other websites now gathered under the umbrella SlowFlowersSociety.com.
Today Ms. Prinzing is everywhere on the cutting edge of cut-flower production, retail and design in the U.S.—at conferences, in the press, and on social media. Her influence is felt in other countries as well. She is clearly the prime mover behind Slow Flowers. But her ideas have met with a receptive audience in a market that was ripe for change.
Factors in Success
Over the past two decades in the U.S., the demand for fresh local produce drove explosive growth in farmers’ markets—which then also served as an outlet and showcase for local flowers.
During the same period, wedding flowers began to drive cut-flower trends. The proliferation of wedding-flowers photos on social media stirred interest in seasonal garden flowers, shown wide open and sometimes short-lived—peonies, foxglove, fritillaries, garden roses, café-au-lait dahlias—that weren’t always available from mainstream growers or wholesalers.
In 2014, just as SlowFlowers.com was coming online, a coalition of U.S. flower farmers launched a new label, “Certified American Grown.” This label offers assurance of domestic origin to florists and consumers via a third-party system of source verification. It is backed by the California Cut Flower Commission, a state agency representing California growers, and by the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers, with more than 1,000 members in every region of the United States, plus some in other countries.
“Buy American” is of course a different message from “buy local.” But the CAG campaign and the Slow Flowers movement lend mutual support. Both promote sustainability and transparency—the simple notion that buyers should be able to know where flowers come from—along with the connotation of quality and freshness.
More Pro than Con
When it comes to politics, Slow Flowers could be seen as a little more to the left, emphasizing sustainability and a connection to nature, while Certified American Grown leans a little more to the right, with a circle-the-wagons appeal to patriotic values.
But most champions of either cause choose to accentuate the positive. “I’ve tried really hard not to be anti-imports,” says Prinzing. “I used to be really vocal about it. Then I realized that imports are the backbone of the floral industry in the U.S. and North America, and that’s just not going to change. What Slow Flowers can do is be an educational niche that supports sustaining domestic floral agriculture as one category in the larger floral marketplace.”
In that arena the movement can point to some degree of success. Small local flower farms are popping up all over the U.S., even in northern states with a short growing season, like Washington and Michigan. Some are florist farmers, growing for their own use. Their operations curiously resemble those of farmer-florists over a century ago—with the difference that they are leveraging social media to reach a trend-sensitive niche market.
The Slow Flowers movement in the U.S. has not gone unnoticed abroad. In some countries, it has sparked or encouraged parallel movements.
In July of 2015, Ms. Prinzing launched American Flowers Week, a focused awareness campaign that has so far generated more than 5 million impressions across social media platforms. She was inspired by the success of British Flowers Week, created in 2013 by growers and florists associated with London’s New Covent Garden Market. Canadian Flowers Week was next, in 2017, and 2018 saw the launch of Australian Flowers Week.
Groups in France and Italy have also been active, using Slow Flowers as an identifier and hashtag. Indeed, just over the year 2018, the hashtag #slowflowers.com achieved nearly 78 million impressions worldwide.
Small but Influential
What is the real-world impact of Slow Flowers? In the U.S. and elsewhere, its appeal to marketers, as well as to consumers, has given the movement a high profile—one that reaches beyond wedding flowers in niche markets to high-end supermarkets and some conventional wholesale and retail florists. Nowadays any of these might feature locally grown flowers as proof of their trend-sensitive bona fides.
It’s clear, however, that flowers from local or even from all domestic sources cannot supply the needs of the American market today. Some would argue that the American market could never have developed to where it is without the consistent, year-round supply of affordable cut flowers from Colombia and Ecuador.
The strongest impact of the Slow Flowers movement might be on cut-flower trends and marketing: what growers grow and what consumers look for. Slow Flowers is an ethic, but also an aesthetic, says Prinzing, focusing on a highly diverse selection of seasonal flowers.
High-production farms, she argues, tend to choose from a relatively narrow selection of crops that show uniformity and that ship well over a long distance. Local flower farmers can be more adventurous in exploring new crops—experimenting with landscape shrubs, or even with plants that are native to the local environment. They tend to zero in on seasonal crops that can be grown sustainably. Even in northern states, many grow field crops only, sometimes using hoop houses, for a harvest season lasting only from June through September.
A current trend that flows naturally from the Slow Flowers scene is the use of the same plant at different stages of its life: both as a flower and as a seedpod, for example. Slow Flowers farmers and customers also tend to readily accept variations in color and form within the same crop—a look that is now considered chic.
Across the board, consumers today are showing more interest in supply-chain transparency. Transparency is important—but even more important, in the case of flowers, is the feeling of connection to nature, which feeds the human passion for flowers and plants. That is precisely the aim of the Slow Flowers movement, says Prinzing: “to reconnect people with the source of their flowers.”
A good example is the wildly successful Field to Vase Dinner Tour, sponsored by Certified American Grown. Those who attend the dinners enjoy a gourmet farm-to-table menu, paired with seasonal, local and sustainable flowers. But the key component is a spectacular flower-farm setting, often with long tables laid among blooming fields.
For those who attend, these events educate and inspire; they also get enthusiastic press. Year to year, ticket sales are jumping. The dinners have been emulated in Canada and by individual flower farmers all over the U.S. The specific goal is to encourage florists or their customers to buy flowers from a domestic source. But it seems likely that they have a broader effect, celebrating flowers and flower farmers generally.
For international suppliers, a dinner tour is not an easy option. Videos, blogs, and any other means of communication with flower buyers will have to do. But for those who offer a diverse selection of trend-sensitive flowers; who invest in sustainable practices, including awareness of the impact on local communities; and who create for customers a transparent opportunity to connect, the momentum behind Slow Flowers can still mean opportunity.