It’s Time to Think About Flowers Like We Do About Produce

So you’re picky about your produce. Good on you. But what about when you shop for flowers? “We know it’s bad to eat a pesticide-laden tomato in January yet we buy out-of-season roses from Trader Joe’s without even thinking about it,” says floral designer Louesa Roebuck.

Roebuck is the author of a new book called Foraged Flora. Her thesis: Floral arrangements should be composed of local, seasonal plants and reflect what co-author Sarah Londsdale calls “the depth and breadth of what can be achieved relying solely on gleaning and foraging.” In other words, Roebuck and Lonsdale want you to stop and think about flowers and other decorative plants the same way you do about avocados: Where did this come from? How was it grown? How much water does it take to produce?

Their approach makes sense. Time was when few people could afford to buy flowers from faraway lands. But today, Americans spend $ 34.3-billion annually on fresh cut flowers and greens, most of which travel thousands of miles before landing in the fridge of their local store. According to the CCFC, 9 out of 10 consumers don’t know where the flowers they’re buying originate (hint: it’s probably Columbia), and you can bet many don’t recognize the environmental footprint of international flower trade (a single rose bloom grown in Kenya, for example, requires up to three gallons of water to produce). “We have a culture of newness and cheerfulness that’s extremely pervasive in the floral world,” Roebuck says. That culture, she argues, is unsustainable.

FFBC.jpgLouesa Roebuck & Sarah Lonsdale/Ten Speed Press

So Roebuck and Lonsdale are trying to change it. Foraged Flora encourages readers to stick to local offerings. For the authors, that means vegetation from the California coast. The book follows the co-authors month-to-month for one year, as they glean, forage, and arrange the plants around them. The results are beautiful, and while the book provides guidance on traditional elements of floral design (color, line, form), its ethos is ultimately ingredient-driven.

That ethos grew from Roebuck’s time working at Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse. Founded by food activist Alice Waters in 1971, the culinary institution helped inspire the sustainable food movement. But Roebuck noticed that her coworkers—locovores who, like her, wouldn’t dare eat a tomato in January—didn’t think about flowers the way they thought about food. “It was innocent, it wasn’t intentional,” Roebuck says. “The floral work just wasn’t simpatico with their world view.” Ever since, She’s been exploring ways to think locally and seasonally beyond the dinner plate.

When it comes to composing floral arrangements, that means working with what’s abundant, instead of striving for a certain look. “I always start with a list of what I want to do, but the whole idea is that if you go to the farmer’s market and you see persimmons that are mind-blowingly beautiful that weren’t on your list, then you always always get those,” she says. Nature can be unpredictable, so it pays to be flexible.

From sourcing (“try industrial wastelands and abandoned lots”) and snipping (“always cut where there’s connectivity”), to arranging (“work gently beside nature”) and decay (“the grandiflora turn a leathery burnished color that I love”), the book reads at times reads like wabi-sabi proverbs for the modern Californian. But this 250-page coffee table book advocates for beauty that’s authentic and self-reliant, regardless of where you live. “I want to give people the inspiration to clip a branch they wouldn’t think to clip,” says Roebuck.  “There’s magical realism happening in your backyard!”

Foraged Flora (Ten Speed Press) by Louesa Roebuck and Sarah Lonsdale (photographs by Laurie Frankel) can be purchased wherever books are sold on October 25th.

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