“Ask the Expert” articles provide information and insights from MSU scientists, researchers, and scholars on national and global issues, complex research, and topics of general interest based on their areas of interest. expertise and academic studies. They may present historical information, backgrounds, research results or offer advice.
There’s never a bad time to buy cut flowers for yourself or to give as gifts “just because”. But there are certain holidays when these flowers are particularly welcome (looking at you, Valentine’s Day). However, it may come as a surprise that the most familiar flowers you’ll find at florists, grocery stores, and online are imported. Approximately 80% of our cut roses, carnations and chrysanthemums are sourced from outside the United States.
MSU floriculture researchers Roberto Lopez (left) and Caleb Spall (right). Credit: Derrick L. Turner
For consumers who want to support local, regional or national cut flower growers, specialty cut flowers are the answer, according to MSU floriculture experts Roberto Lopez and Caleb Spall. These flowers—primarily those that aren’t part of the previously mentioned “Big Three”—can offer a wider range of colors, scents, textures, and overall beauty.
Lopez and Spall of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources work to help greenhouse growers succeed in the booming and growing specialty cut flower industry. We caught up with these two spartan researchers to find out how we can help local growers and make more eco-friendly choices when buying floral gifts.
What are specialty cut flowers?
Caleb Spall, Masters Candidate and 2021 American Floral Endowment Paul Ecke, Jr. Scholar:
Traditionally, they are defined as any cut flower other than roses, carnations or chrysanthemums. It’s a fairly simple definition, but it encompasses a wide variety of fresh and dried cut flowers, woody stems and even cut foliage.
Roberto Lopez, Associate Professor of horticulture and extension specialist:
Roses, carnations, and chrysanthemums were grown locally in parts of the United States with high light intensities and moderate temperatures, such as Colorado and California. But as labor, energy, and greenhouse operating costs rose, the industry shifted, primarily to Colombia, Ecuador, and parts of Africa that have the ideal climate for year-round production. These three crops hold up well during shipping and have a long vase life, so the location of production is more flexible.
The specialty cut flower industry in the United States is booming, but most specialty cut flowers don’t ship very well. For example, if snapdragon cut flowers are laid flat in a box, they begin to defy gravity and curl upwards during transport. The resulting bent stems are then no longer considered marketable when they arrive at their destination.
Why might people consider buying specialty cut flowers?
Chipping: Specialty cut flowers can come in so many different textures and colors and can make an arrangement even more unique and eye-catching than a traditional arrangement of, say, just roses.
Young consumers are interested in native, organic, diverse and exciting cut flowers that are locally sourced and grown within a certain radius of where they live. Some consider traditional cut flowers to be produced thousands of miles away and have a substantial carbon footprint due to this long distance shipping.
Where can people find specialty cut flowers?
Chipping: There are a wide variety of places where people can buy specialty cut flowers or cut their own at a U-cut farm, but this varies by season. Personally, I also like going to farmers markets in the spring and summer. You can also find the flowers year-round at florists, specialty markets, and even supermarkets.
Locally, some examples are Stiles Pumpkin Farm and Back Road Blossoms U-Cut Flowers in Durand. I live close to the East Lansing Farmer’s Market, and the farmers and vendors have beautiful locally grown arrangements and individual stems that often sell out quickly. Then Horrocks Farm Market in Lansing and Meijer are open all year round.
Lopez: In addition, consumers can participate in CSAs or community supported agriculture. Just to give you an example of something very local, the MSU student organic farm has a year round CSA and during the summer months they offer shares of cut flowers in addition to their shares of traditional produce.
I encourage people to visit the websites of the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers, Certified American Grown, or the Michigan Flower Growers Cooperative to find information on where to buy flowers grown in their area.
Looks like it might be a little hard to find Michigan specialty cut flowers in February. Do you have any other tips that might help people make more sustainable winter flower choices?
Lopez: One of the things I always look for when I see cut flowers at a grocery store or big box store, like Costco or Trader Joe’s, for example, are the origin and verification labels. American growers take pride in their products, so you may see labels such as “California Grown” or “Certified American Grown”.
Flowers grown domestically or imported may have labels stating that they are grown sustainably. You may see cut flowers labeled as certified by Veriflora, MPS, or Rainforest Alliance, a non-profit group working to protect the environment and farmers for many traditional cut flowers.
Author’s note: MPS stands for Milieu Programma Sierteelt, which in Dutch means “Environmental Program Floriculture”.
Chipping: There are also other labels and certifications. For example, certification is available from the Fair Food Program, an organization that works to preserve workers’ rights, wages, and protections. I would encourage people buying flowers to check out the different certifications and support organizations that not only focus on how the plants are produced, but also on the health and well-being of the people producing the plants. It is important to remember that by buying cut flowers you are supporting the growers and the people who harvest them.