How to Find Ethical and Sustainable Flowers

Image: Flowers from the Farm

Roses are red, but are they sustainable? And what are the ethics like on the farms where they are grown? Floral designer Juliet Glaves looks into the truth behind commercial flowers and suggests some options that are better for both people and planet. 

Let me start with a disclaimer: I love roses. But by this, I mean the entire glorious gamut of sensual and scented flowers that fall under that name. From wild roses to flamboyant hybrid teas to the softest pale pink ramblings of Albertine, these beautiful and varied blooms grace gardens across in England between early May and late autumn.

In complete contrast, are the red roses flooding our high streets in their millions this February. Cultivated as vast monocrops to fulfil the high commercial demands of Valentine’s day, these flowers are imported into the UK from countries such as Kenya, Colombia and Vietnam by the million. Not only do they have a sizable carbon footprint, but the working conditions on these farms are often exploitative, with long working hours, hard physical labour with little pay. It is also worth considering the high amounts of toxic pestisides used to grow these uniform red blooms, which are harmful not only to the planet but to the workers who are in contact with them every day.

Images: Flowers from the Farm

So, what are the sustainable choices for climate-conscious romantics seeking out sustainable flowers? Just as with fruits and vegetables, making a lower impact choice means seeking out seasonal produce. You would be forgiven for thinking that the options are limited, with British gardens only just waking up from the depths of winter at this time of year. At home, the tiny white snowdrops and crocuses are in full flow, but only the earliest blossoms are starting to burst on selective trees, as shrubs and hellebores wake up from the winter.

But there’s hope. Thankfully, after decades of decline, the British cut flower industry is going through a resurgence. In the traditional growing areas in the south and east regions of the country, a new generation of large-scale growers are producing marketable, seasonal cut flowers. I am very proud to have been a part of it, ever since my husband and I gave up life as we knew it 11 years ago, bought an old farm and dedicated that land to growing as many varieties of flowers we could find. The aim was to create a sustainable floristry business, and now, almost a decade later, during our growing season flower pens burst with colour and scent, humming with insect life as the flowers grow naturally.

Image: Juliet Glaves

By growing under glass, local flower farms like ours are able to offer an array of beautiful spring blooms just in time for Valentine’s Day. At this time of year, Hellebores, Alstromerias, Scabius, scented Stocks and Hyacinths are in bloom, alongside Ranunculus, Freesias, Carnations, Chrysanthemums and lively, hydroponically grown (without soil) Tulip varieties.

Throughout the Scilly isles, fields are full of delicate and wonderfully fragrant Narcissi. Harvested from October to late March, they can be ordered online directly from the island’s flower farms. Meanwhile in Cornwall, specialist growers are cutting seasonal Camellias, both as foliage and in flower, as well as lots of gorgeous English greenery from Eucalyptus to Myrtle – a symbol of love and an emblem for marriage, if it’s romance that you’re after!

Images: Howe Farm Flowers, Juliet Glaves

A good starting point for sourcing seasonal, more sustainable flowers is Flowers from the Farm. A not-for-profit cooperative of British cut flower growers, their members include everyone from micro growers on allotments to flower farmers on six acres or more. Their website provides contact details for the 700 odd growers producing flowers across the country – everything you need to seek out blooms that are ‘grown not flown’. 

Two of my favourite sustainable suppliers are Tregothnan and Petersham Nurseries, both of which are committed to growing and supplying local blooms. London’s New Covent Garden wholesale flower market also has a good selection of flowers and foliage grown in the UK and is opens to the public on Saturday mornings. If in doubt, you can ask your local florist what they have or can get hold of that is British grown. They will most likely order from one of the larger wholesalers or directly from the grower. And while it might seem an unlikely place to look, most supermarkets also stock seasonal British flowers, clearly labelled and at various price points. In place of the commercial red roses, Waitrose are even stocking a luxury bouquet of one hundred British red tulips.

Image: Juliet Glaves

The more that the independent flower growing movement thrives within the UK, the more accessible home-grown seasonal flowers will become and the less we will rely so heavily on importing. Shifting to locally grown blooms to decorate our houses has the potential to lower the carbon footprint of the industry and give us better control over the working conditions in the fields where our flowers are grown.

With this in mind, perhaps the most sustainable gift of all this Valentine’s day is to resist the urge to buy a dozen red roses and instead tuck a monthly subscription to a local flower grower inside your card. This way, while you help to support a local industry, your loved ones can enjoy a superb bunch of flowers, delivered every month during Britain’s actual growing season, from March to the first frosts.