Monday, October 12, 2009

Book Review: Flower Confidential

Have you ever wondered how far the flowers at your local florist shop traveled to reach your vase?  Have you ever wondered what their life is like or who brought them to flower?

There's a new book available by Amy Stewart called Wicked Plants, which doesn't tell you any of that.  Wicked Plants has been getting lots of publicity in the plant world lately, so I put my name on the hold list at the library.  While I was waiting on that book to become available, I looked into other books by Stewart, including Flower Confidential, which tells the story of the international flower producing market.  That book does answer all your questions about the cut flower industry.

Flower Confidential is an entertaining read, written in the same format as Michael Pollan's Botany of Desire.  The sections of the book are divided into Breeding, Selling and Growing.  Each chapter uses separate flowers from different parts of the world as illustrative examples of the flower industry.  Gerbera daisies, Roses, Tulips and Lilies are all used to tell about different facets of this unique industry.

I have to admit, the book had more information on the cut flower industry than I cared to know.  But it was the subject of the book, so I can't fault Amy Stewart for that.  The parts I most enjoyed were sections describing the different growers with whom she visited and what their growing methods and interests were.

Some things I learned

The entire book was filled with information that I had never heard before, but a couple of little things struck me as particularly interesting.

When flower breeders began to try to force plants to bloom out of season, it was loosely determined that photoperiod determined when many different plants bloom.  Photoperiod is number of daylight hours available each day.  Most people would be content to know that this is important in determining when flowers would bloom.  Growers could either force plants to flower or hold them back by manipulating the hours of light available to their plants.  The manipulation could be done by using artificial lighting during dark hours and shades during the light hours, to make sure the desired photoperiod was met.  However, there were some horticulturalists that were a little more curious than the average grower who wondered, Is it really the number of daylight hours, or is it the number of dark hours? You might say that it doesn't really matter, since the two are related.  However, the scientists were able to set up a completely controlled growing environment, in which they created different day lengths.  For example, in a covered building, they were able to simulated 26 or 30 hour days and varied the number of hours in which the plants received light.  They determined that the number of dark hours was the actual trigger that initiated the blooming process.  In other words, regardless of the time from one sunrise to the next sunrise, a plant requires a specific number of dark hours to initiate the blooming process.  If the length of the entire day varies, but the number of dark hours stays constant, the plant would still be triggered to bloom.  Cool, huh?

On a completely different note, I learned about a unique type of flower auction that is held in the Netherlands.  I didn't know that flower auctions were even held in the Netherlands, but I was more surprised to hear about the format of these auctions.  A large round scale is available for each cut flower that is being put on auction.  Picture a produce scale from the grocery store, except that the value is displayed with a little digital light around the rim of the circle.  And the value is the cost per stem of a particular cut flower.  The top of the "clock" represents $1.00 and the bottom represents 50 cents.  For a value greater than $1, a different colored light is used to represent dollars, much like an hour hand on a clock.

But the clock itself is not what is so unique about this auction, in my mind.  These auctions are held in Aalsmeer in the second largest (by floorspace) building in the world!  But even that is not the unique factor I found so fascinating.  The unique factor here is that the flower auctions are descending-bid auctions.  That is, the auction starts off with a value that is much more than anyone would pay for the item, rather than much less.  Then, the "clock" device begins to tick downwards.  Everyone interested in the available flowers is anxiously watching the dial to see the light approach the value they are willing to bid.  But unlike other auctions, the first bid that is placed is the winner.  So you can decide ahead of time that you will buy this bundle of flowers if the price falls to $1.43 per stem.  You sit there watching and it gets down to $1.47, $1.46, $1.45 and DING!  Your price was too low.  Someone just snatched them up at $1.45!  Next time you might get a little more anxious as the price nears the value you had planned to bid.  This time you end up bidding on the flowers at $1.46 - just to be safe.

Amy Stewart pointed out that, while this form of auction seems very backwards to most people at first hearing, it is actually a lot like how most people make their normal purchasing decisions.  You see an item at the store that you are interested in buying, but you shop around until you find the price low enough that you are willing to purchase it.  Or you wait until later in the season, hoping the store will discount the price.  Either way, whether shopping around or waiting for a mark down, you run the risk of the items all being sold before a lower price is offered.  This is just how the descending-bid auction works.

So it doesn't have much to do with plants, but I found it very interesting.  I hope you did, too.

1 comment:

  1. All of this is so interesting. I noticed recently that some flowers that usually bloom in early spring here, were blooming in late summer in the northeast part of the U.S. That seems like such a wider range than I had thought, but probably due to the hours of light and dark that vary along with the temperatures.
    The flower auction sounds crazy!