Fresh Cut

by | Nov 1, 2008 | Native Plants

IN THE FIRST PALE LIGHT of a late-May Texas Hill Country morning, Pamela and Frank Arnosky and their eldest son, Derrick, have been at work for hours in their packing shed, readying the previous day’s harvest for market. The chatter of birds, occasional turkey’s gobble and banter of people accustomed to working together punctuate the stillness of the waking day. The Arnoskys are flower farmers with a passionate vision whose diverse crops include a liberal dose of cultivated native wildflowers.

Buckets of freshly cut flowers create a color spectrum that fills every corner of the shed. Without losing the rhythm of their work, the couple shares their knowledge gained from 18 years of flower farming and their views on the native wildflower segment of the U.S. floriculture industry.

Like all other segments of the economy, globalization has altered this industry. U.S. sales for retail floriculture posted by the Society of American Florists totaled more than $20 billion in 2007, with Colombia growing the most imported flowers and California growing the most domestically. South American cut flowers, grown mostly in Colombia and Ecuador, have severely undercut the U.S. market, particularly for roses, carnations and mums – considered to be the industry mainstays.

“Specialty cut flowers have become the most important part of the U.S. cut flower industry,” reports John Dole in the publication “Status of the Specialty Cut Flower Industry and New Crop Development,” noting that domestic specialty cut production totaled $443 million in 2002. A specialty cut is anything other than the three industry mainstays and is difficult to define since the possibilities are nearly endless.

Dole adds that novel cut flowers such as native species have become increasingly important for U.S. flower farmers to maintain a competitive edge over foreign-grown flowers. Growing and shipping wildflowers has its challenges. The fact that most wildflowers’ fragility won’t let them tolerate packing and shipping like other flowers makes local flowers more attractive to some florists. However, the season for cultivated wildflowers is short since they’re grown in the field rather than in hoop houses or green houses.

Not surprisingly, there have been recent efforts within the floral industry to “go green.” Veriflora is a third-party certifying entity for cut flowers sold in the United States. It evaluates the practices of flower producers based on elements of sustainability that include respect for the environment, economy and social justice, as well as product integrity. The company is “on track to certify 1 billion stems in 2008,” reports Amy Stewart in her book “Flower Confidential.”

Although there are many newcomers to the trend, some floral designers, retailers and farmers like the Arnoskys have long understood the value of preserving native flowers through their work.

The Arnoskys bought their farm in 1990 and learned about growing cut flowers along the way, aided by Frank’s background in horticulture and their persistence. They got their big break when Central Market, a specialty grocery store owned by H-E-B, opened in 1994, and the Arnoskys started selling their flowers there. Frustrated by the lack of information available for those wanting to enter the specialty cut flower business, the couple began writing a column for “Growing for Market,” a trade publication for direct-market farmers. They compiled the columns from 1995 to 1998 into the book “We’re Gonna Be Rich!” and are profiled in the second edition of “The Flower Farmer” by Lynn Byczynski, Chelsea Green Press.

The Arnoskys’ 128-acre farm is now a leader in the specialty cut flower industry. “We have about 40 acres in cut flowers, which we market under the brand Texas Specialty Cut Flowers,” says Pamela.

The rest is dedicated to vegetables, goats and fruit orchards – and some of it is left wild. Pamela estimates that during spring most bouquets contain three to four different wildflowers. She names at least 16 different wildflowers grown on the farm, including Texas bluebells (Eustoma exaltatum ssp. russellianum), clasping coneflower (Dracopis amplexicaulis) and cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis).

Frank says, “We have over 50 to 60 flowers. We try to rotate crops so that nothing is ever planted in a bed that had the same crop within a year. That way we can avoid diseases and pests. There’s such a variety of plant material out here, so we never really get pest build-up in any great amount. We get a lot of natural plant material and natural predators living in the borders surrounding the beds.”

Located in Peyton Colony between Blanco and Austin, the farm is important to the public. “One of the reasons we have the farm as a destination is that we want people to feel like we are their flower farmer,” she says. “Saturdays we do a year-round farm stand. And then it’s self-serve all week.” In addition to their own flowers and produce, they sell local items such as Pure Luck Grade A goat dairy cheeses, Full Quiver Farms cow cheeses, and Onion Creek Kitchens’ spice mixes and tapenades. “We have a vision of gently developed agricultural tourism out here.”

In addition to Central Market, Texas Specialty Cut Flowers are used by numerous retail florists and floral designers and can be found in Austin at markets including Whole Foods, Westlake H-E-B and Westbank Flower Market.

With four children – Derrick, Hannah Rose, Janos and Elena – and a farm to run, life is full. In return, the Arnoskys are full of life and hundreds of good stories. A classic is the invitation the self-described “good yellow dog Democrats” received – with some hesitation – to attend George W. Bush’s first inaugural ball. With friend Lady Bird Johnson’s blessing and a borrowed old Louis Vuitton luggage piece from her, they headed to Washington.

The Arnoskys’ zest for life and growing flowers is shared by friend and colleague East Coast flower farmer Bob Wollam, owner of Wollam Gardens in Jeffersonton, Virginia, about 60 miles from Washington, D.C. These days, Wollam can’t stop talking about growing woody plants. He bought the 11-acre farm in 1988 and has about seven acres in intense production. Wollam enthusiastically describes growing the white (lactea) form of American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) and the Welch’s pink cultivar that was discovered in the woods of East Texas. He describes other native woody plants on the farm such as red and gold winterberry (Ilex verticillata), blue wild indigo (Baptisia australis) and the common ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) in the ‘Diablo’ cultivar with its dark-purple stems and purple capsules that form after flowering.

“I’m continually searching for plants that make great cut flowers that other people don’t grow well or other people don’t grow at all or that don’t ship well,” he says.

“Everywhere in the world I’ve lived, including Thailand, Malaysia, Ohio, Connecticut and Texas, I owned a farm or had a piece of land for growing. I always wanted to plant some flowers and plant some veggies. All those years I was in the corporate world. But I was always a would-be farmer,” Wollam remarks.

In the early 1990s, Wollam enrolled in a landscape design program at George Washington University and realized that he loved the plant classes. Soon after that he discovered cut flowers and later met Frank Arnosky. “I realized that this [growing cut flowers] is what I was supposed to be doing,” he says. Now, part of what he loves doing is teaching future generations of flower farmers. His passion for teaching inspired him to bring on board resident interns, who among other things help staff the farm’s booths at farmers’ markets in Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia. Wollam was instrumental in starting the Tri-County Farmers’ Market in Fauquier County, Virginia – close to the farm.

“The demand for locally grown flowers is serious. Florists are calling me and saying, ‘I’ve got this bride that wants local flowers,’” reports Wollam, who also markets to about 15 retail florists, a handful of Whole Foods markets and five or six floral designers who come directly to the farm to buy.

The style and motivation of floral designers who use wildflowers in their arrangements is as varied as the shape, color and texture of each bud, leaf and blossom. Janet Hampel, owner of Florabella Designs, began designing floral arrangements in the ‘90s. She found herself more and more attracted to incorporating native plants and sustainably grown flowers as a logical intersection between her personal beliefs and her professional goals. “When you purchase sustainably grown flowers, you are protecting the environment and expressing your understanding of the connection between your own well-being and that of the earth. More and more consumers are waking up to this idea,” Hampel says.

“After all, real beauty in a floral arrangement,” she continues, “doesn’t require lavish, out-of-season exotics trucked in from a thousand miles away.”

Although not all clients want native flowers and plants, Hampel – who works mainly in Austin, Texas, western Michigan, and Aspen, Colorado – gears her lush creations to meet the tone of each event. Her earth-friendly designs reflect the season at hand and bring together local greenery, native potted plants, and locally grown, organically sourced and native flowers, when possible. “It’s all about seasonality,” she says.

Across the country in northern Virginia, the floral designs of May Bernhardt, designer/owner of Mayflowers Floral Studios have an avant garde and couture look. To achieve this look, Bernhardt often relies on a variety of natives for accents in her floral designs. “I’m one of Bob Wollam’s original customers when he first started,” says May Bernhardt. “I buy about 50 percent of my flowers from him in the summer. The beautyberries are my favorites, and the chokeberries [Photinia pyrifolia] with their red berries are beautiful for the fall. I use the inland sea oats [Chasmanthium latifolium] all throughout the summer.”

Event planners also have noticed an increased demand for native arrangements. The family-owned Barr Mansion and Artisan Ballroom in Austin, Texas, is the first certified organic events facility in the nation. Abby Daigle serves as resident florist and event coordinator and is the daughter of owners Melanie and Mark McAfee, who are deeply committed to sustainable communities. Daigle estimates that about 5 percent of clients seek out wildflowers and locally grown flowers for their celebrations. Despite the small number, she sees an overall growing awareness of the green movement among clients, many of whom are bridal couples. “We’re lucky that our clients are usually more centered around green aspects and local and organic,” Daigle says. Even if clients do not select wildflowers for their floral arrangements, Daigle uses greenery grown on-site to decorate platters, plates and buffets.

Whatever the motivation for creating floral designs with native wildflowers, the end product results in numerous benefits for the community at large. The environment wins from continued cultivation of native species and fewer natural resources used for transportation of local plants. Farms contribute to a strong local economy by providing jobs and add to social equity by enabling diverse communities. And, finally, the aesthetic appeal of flowers and flower farms can’t be emphasized enough.