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Slow flowers: Climate friendly Valentine's Day blooms

February 14, 2023

Where's the romance in sending a bouquet of pesticide-laden flowers flown halfway across the world on Valentine's Day? Say "I love you and the planet" with seasonal, sustainable, slow flowers instead.

Pinky-red blossoms on a branch
Image: Gabel & Spaten

Sending a bouquet of chemicals to a significant other on Valentine's Day is not exactly the epitome of romance. But on February 14, that is exactly what people all over the world often do when they gift conventionally grown flowers. 

During winter in the Northern Hemisphere, roses are flown in from the southern half of the planet. The sunny climate there makes for ideal growing conditions. But pesticides banned in Europe used in conventional flower farming are dangerous to the local environment and industry workers in countries like Kenya, according to German environmental group BUND. 

The legacy of Kenya's toxic lake

Flowers flown long distances also have a large carbon footprint, as do those grown in heated greenhouses in famous floriculture-producing nations like the Netherlands. 

Colorful blossoms might be scarce in colder months, but that does not mean those looking for a greener choice have to resort to presenting their significant others with a handful of sticks on Valentine's Day. There are alternatives available. 

Roses need not be the go-to flower on Valentine's Day, said Elke Markwort, who runs a floristry in the western German city of Münster. 

"Spring blossoms also make for beautiful Valentine's bouquets. For example, I planted little grape hyacinths in heart-shaped dishes and decorated them with fair-trade felt hearts."  

Slow flowers: Regional, seasonal, and pesticide-free 

In Markwort's shop, alongside flowers produced in conventional ways, customers will find some blossoms the florist grows herself in warmer months. She is a member of Germany's burgeoning "Slow Flower Movement." 

A mixed crew of shop owners, hobby gardeners, flower farmers, and events florists, the movement is all about promoting sustainably and regionally-grown blooms free from pesticides and chemical fertilizers. 

"When it comes to groceries, so many people now look at where their food comes from and how it was grown, but unfortunately that's rarely the case with flowers," said Jane Silburn, a flower farmer and spokesperson for the Slow Flower Movement. 

"We use sustainably produced seeds, try to make our own compost out of plant residue, and don't use flower foam blocks," explained Silburn. The foam blocks made from plastic are soaked in water and used to keep flower centerpieces fresh. But they contribute to microplastic pollution. 

From regional to dried flowers 

No matter the time of year, Silburn says there are plenty of ways to get creative with flower arrangements while adhering to the movement's philosophy. In February, the first tulips start to sprout in greenhouses that are heated just by sunlight, and the branches of fruit trees can blossom when kept in in warm homes. 

"Even in winter, you can make exciting pieces by working with knotted branches. There's so much texture and structure there. A lot of things in winter and at the beginning of spring can be beautiful if you move away from the classic floral idea," said Silburn. 

A bouquet of cream-colored Christmas roses
Nature delivers even when it's cold: A bouquet of Christmas roses, hazelnut blossoms, rosemary, and fruit-tree sprigsImage: Susanne Kieser/Lukas Kieser

Dried flowers are another option to brighten up winter days. They're harvested in summer, gently dried to retain as much color as possible, and stored for the winter, without the chemicals often used in conventionally dried flowers. 

"Everlasting flowers, sea lavender and lavender, as well as hydrangeas, dry beautifully," added Silburn, as do seed heads, like poppies, grasses, and leafy plants. 

Dried flowers are a big hit right now, said Silburn. A quick glance at flower influencers on social media would appear to confirm that. They are selling well in Elke Markwort's shop in Münster, too. 

"I'm really pleased that dried flowers are in demand again. In winter, we have wonderful money plants, or lunaria, that we grow ourselves, and we combine those with our own eucalyptus and branches," said the florist.

Slow flowers: Not just in Germany 

The slow flower philosophy isn't just confined to Germany. Flowers from the Farm was founded 10 years ago in the UK, and now has 1,000 members. The USA and Italy have their own movements. 

In Germany, Austria, and German-speaking Switzerland, the association has about 200 members. More than three quarters work alone or with a partner, and more than half sell sustainable flowers as a side gig. 

A field of flowers and grasses
Blooming fields, free of pesticides: A paradise for polllinatorsImage: Caroline Wolf/Urwüchsig

Many members sell their products online, including Jane Silburn. They're conscious of the transport emissions but "think it's a lesser evil to send sustainable flowers rather than telling people 'if you don't live near a slow flower field, you'll have to buy conventional flowers.'" 

They avoid plastic where possible, and GM plants are a taboo. But that does not mean the slow flower movement is fully organic. Silburn says there are organic farms among their members, but that there is no independent organic certification. The association relies on voluntary adherence to its own guidelines.  

Quality above quantity 

Slow flowers are pricier than flowers sold en masse in supermarkets. That's because of the manual labor involved — from cultivating and tending to flowers in the field, to harvesting, Silburn explains. 

"Flowers are luxury products, and so they should be. People should appreciate them again and not view them as a cheap mass product," said Silburn. 

A winter bouquet of Christmas roses and earth-colored grasses
Mixing leaves, flowers, grasses, and branches allow florists to create magic with form, structure, and color.Image: Ikoflowers

Despite the higher prices, demand for regionally and sustainably grown flowers is high, says florist Elke Markwort. She labels the slow flowers for sale in her shop with small slips of paper. 

 "We always point them out because we just think they're really great," said Markwort. 

Most people who come into her store are excited to see native flowers. 

"And they often come back for that very reason," added Markwort. "We have a little slow-flower fan base now."

This article was originally published in German.

Portrait of a woman (Jeannette Cwienk) with blonde hair and wearing a scarf and gray blazer
Jeannette Cwienk Writer and editor with a focus on climate and environmental issues