Friday, December 31, 2010


Such is the nature of our society today that we hear an awful lot about female entertainers (more than I need to know), a few of whom aspire to be divas and quite a few more who are dubbed as such by the popular gossip rags and the paparazzi. While almost all qualify for the mantle due to their outrageous and demanding behavior, almost all fail as a legitimate diva because they simply do not have the talent, guts and wit. A few who can be considered to be true divas come to mind; Streisand; Madonna perhaps; Elizabeth Taylor certainly. I imagine that everyone has a candidate or two who I am sure deserves to be on a short-list of genuine "Divas". But I doubt that any can measure up to the fin-de-siècle French actress "Sarah Bernhardt" who combined a flair for the flamboyant and outrageous with arguably one of the greatest theatrical talents of all time. Her wit was widely appreciated, and when no less a person than Oscar Wilde politely asked at her salon; "Do you mind if I smoke?" she adroitly replied "I don't care if you burn".
Sarah Bernhardt was reputed to have many lovers in her circle, especially noted artists and painters, as well as being rumored to have had an affair with noted impressionist "Louise Abbema". Miss Bernhardt, who came to be known as "The Divine Sarah", was rumored to have slept in a coffin in order to immerse herself in the tragic nature of the characters she would play on stage. Certainly, she used still photographs of herself at repose in the coffin to great effect. However, what really stands her apart, and garnered the epithet - "The greatest actress of all time" - was her overarching command of her stage craft. Consider that, even after she had a leg amputated due to gangrene that infected her after a tragic fall in Rio de Janeiro, she was still able to fill theatres to capacity even though she refused to wear a prosthetic limb. Sarah Bernhardt's total absorption into  characters she played captivated audiences around the world, and her mellifluous voice, described by Victor Hugo as 'golden' and by many contemporary critics as 'silver', simply was unparalleled in the world of entertainment. The noted American author Mark Twain stated: “There are five kinds of actresses: bad actresses, fair actresses, good actresses, great actresses, and Sarah Bernhardt.”  Almost until her death, a Sarah Bernhardt performance was a much sought after ticket wherever she played. She was renowned in Paris, London New York and Rio and this was before the advent of cinemas and the widespread introduction of movies. 
And yet, a mere hundred years after her golden years, she is almost unknown, an artist and celebrity who has become enveloped in the shrouds of time, and almost completely forgotten. In fact, apart from the world of theatrical archives and historians she would have vanished completely were it not for one seemingly minor event that occurred during her lifetime. Such were the accolades that were thrust upon this scintillating talent, from her peers and politicians alike, that the fact that a flower breeder in her native France would choose to name a peony after her as a tribute to her brilliance would probably be considered as a minor footnote in her career. How ironic that it is this occurrence that has kept the name "Sarah Bernhardt" alive and vibrant around the world for people who love flowers and plants, and in particular peonies. Yet little is now known about Sarah Bernhardt today, although some insightful biographies have been published recently - and even less is known about the genius who created the "Sarah Bernhardt" peony; Victor Lemoine.
The intersection of these two giants in their fields created a seminal occurrence; namely one of the most beloved plants in the world, with their stunning fully double, sweetly fragrant flowers featuring rich rouched chiffonades of glorious pink petals and which endure whether on the plant or in a vase. Paeonia "Sarah Bernhardt" truly is a masterpiece.
By the time Victor Lemoine created paeonia "Sarah Bernhardt" and introduced the dazzling bloom in 1907 he was already famous for the prodigious cultivars that he had introduced to the world. His work was not only prodigious in quality, but in the volume of output. I will chronicle his work at later date as he is truly worthy of review, but suffice it to say that this man created cultivars of peonies, lilac and hydrangeas, to name just a few species that he worked on, that are still in use and much sought after today!
What I find most remarkable is that, while we are incessantly and continuously inundated with new varieties of many flowers, especially roses, but also chrysanthemums, carnations, etc., (hell it seems like there is a new variety of gyp each year these days!!) the peonies we use in the cut flower trade are generally over a hundred years old. Now there are some notable exceptions such as the classic P. "Red Charm" 1947 and P. "Coral Sunset", but in general the really striking varieties such as P. "Duchesse de Nemours", P. "Festiva Maxima" and of course the aforementioned Sarah B are vintages of at least a century.
Given that we are in a fashion-based business, one realises that, now more than ever, the breeders have an incentive to churn out new "models" each year in order to harness royalties for the products. After an initial flurry of demand for this season's introductions, more often than not, the revenues taper off so the breeders must keep bringing out new items to stimulate cash flow. Once in a while a rose breeder will find a rose that endures thanks to a combination of market demand and desirable productivity. One notable example of this is "Vendela", which due to its performance for the florist, its color and shape, as well as very high productivity, and good shipping endurance, has made this one of the greatest commecial cut roses of our era. In fact such has been the popularity of this rose that the royalties are set to expire, which for a breeder means that this is now a non-performing asset. 
All this makes me wonder how many really great roses ( or other commercial species for that matter) may be on the trash heap of fashion or in the garbage pail of non-performing assets. More than a few, I suspect, and certainly there will be some that will become interesting from a growers' perspective as the marketplace orients toward demanding fragrant varieties. I have a book in my collection called "McFarland's Modern Roses", published in 1965 which has over 10,000 roses listed...then! I like to peruse this now and then to look up names as well as check out old varieties, and it can be quite entertaining.  I imagine there are are items in there worthy of a second look. How about this: "Grey Pearl" (aka "the Mouse") bred by McGredy and introduced by Jackson & Perkins in 1945. Double flower with large ovoid bud, 40-45 petals (which is excellent), high-centered tea (not-so-cool, but manageable) fragrant and the color is lavender gray shaded olive and tan!!! Sounds awesome.

Mmm...I think I have digressed from my original topic. I am struck by the fact that no matter how famous one may be during one's lifetime,  eventually the sands of time will erode the most magnificent personages, and what endures seems to be only that which is beautiful and true, such as great music, great paintings and great flowers. Especially great flowers; even the Peony is named for the pupil of the great Greek doctor Asclepias, a humble shepherd called Paeon. While today we recognise the Asclepia as a so-so flower, it is the Peony that today far outshines the teacher. 
Incidentally, Vendela was a well known model from Sweden who had a short modelling career in the 1970's, but whose name endures, her beauty personified to this day in the classic cream rose.
It is also comforting to realise that a somewhat mediocre rose, appropriately  called "Trump", appears to have a very short life expectancy.

 A happy, safe and prosperous New Year to all.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


Last week I tested a fairly new variety "Black Finess", which for all intents and purposes resulted in a two thumbs down for the product. Normally when a product fails, I would not mention it, but rather would recommend that we do not sell it as it is flawed. In this case I would like to use the "Fail" to comment on a couple of issues raised by this rose.
First of all, it is pertinent to point out that there is no such rose as "Black Finess", at least not one that has been registered by a breeder. De Ruiters, the company that bred the original "Finess" and holds the rights to the Finess series does not acknowledge any such rose. This serves to highlight a tactic used not uncommonly by growers, and sometimes breeders, when they run into problems marketing a rose: Change the name. The rose that I tested has some beautiful characteristics, including a rich velvet sheen on the petals, a very attractive, fruity red color and a superb structure. However the rose is deeply flawed, with excessive "bronzing" on the guard petals and on the edges of some interior petals. This is not Botrytis cinerea, the fungus that is often seen in roses and which cause petals to turn brown and mushy, but a genetic flaw often exacerbated in cold weather. However, it is not attractive and presents an appearance of disease, which is almost as bad. If it could be limited to the guard petals it would be alright (as in the case of Black Magic), but this 'bronzing' is prevalent on interior petals. My suspicion is that this is a variety that surfaced 4 or 5 years ago called "Black Lava", which failed for the same reasons. Given that the rose showed so much promise, it could be that the growers who have it in the ground with, or without the collusion of the breeder, attempted to resurrect it, with a new 'hot' name.
One of the most famous name changes of late, is that of "Bloody Mary". This rose was going nowhere fast, as it was (and still is, in my opinion) rather pedestrian, with an old fashioned high-centered spiral shape. It appears the breeder, latching on to a massive wave of patriotism in the USA, adroitly switched the name to "Freedom". I don't think I need to say more.
While I do not recommend either "Black Finess" and/or "Black Lava", I would like to underline the fact that, as we go forwards to Valentine's Day, if you receive a rose with brown on the guard petals, do not automatically assume the worst. The easy test to see if it botrytis or bronzing is to gently rub the petal: If it feels dry (and occasionally some brown dust is released on to the fingers like rust) then it is the bronzing; if it feels moist and perhaps mushy it is probably fungus. In either case, remove the guard petals and review the rose further - if the damage persists it may be cause to alert your provider of a problem. Remember the guard petals are there to protect the flower from these very issues, so no judgement should be made until they are removed.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


OMG...mmmm, well rather OMSOG seeing as its Christmas. "Oh my son of God" in other words! Where have we gone so wrong in our approach to flowers at Christmas? I have been expressing my concern, as well as a disdainful eye on the work of many florists for not employing their considerable talents to simply put a stop to the madness.
Flowers, and if you are religiously inclined, and any religion will do, flowers, are one of God's most spectacular creations. All of them, not just the red ones, or the white ones, or the coniferous foliage's. So at Christmas-time surely there is a way to celebrate this, to create arrangements in diverse colors other than red and white, and yet make something Christmassy. Or Xmassy if you prefer.
Why are we still slaves to a corporate creation of the Coca Cola company sometime way back when, which somehow instilled the idea that Red & White are traditional Christmas colors? If there is a traditional color it is that of gold, as a reference to one of the gifts presented by the Magi to the infant Jesus, and which traditionally denoted royalty and therefore befitting the "King of Kings". The idea of Christmas, in my opinion is one of spirituality, and yet most of the time these days we settle for a gross and vulgar denial of spirituality, and love, and compassion and tolerance of others. I am fairly certain that a gift of flowers given to a loved one, to an associate at work, or to someone as a way of saying "Thank You for being there" would be welcome in any color combination.
"Yes, but its traditional", one can hear the Christmas Chorus a-crying, while overlooking the 40lb, 6 ft. actual tree in their living rooms, covered in ornaments in every hue of the rainbow, and some that are not even in the rainbow as well. A lot of gold, silver, iridescent blue, viridian green, yellow, turquoise, purple, and in almost every texture from matte to mirrored. A few red ornaments too, but you get the idea.
I have been pointing this out for years, and mostly falling on deaf ears it would seem, so it is rather refreshing to see a couple of voices in the industry (that I am aware of, there are probably many more - I would like to hear from you) pointing out a desire for change.
I noticed on the blog of "Miss Pickering", a designer based in Stamford, England, recently expressed the desire, namely "I Want to Break Free" ...from the red! And yesterday she posted an item titled "Fairy Lights" with wreaths featuring jewel-like or 'fairy light' type berries and balls. No red in sight, and yet retaining a Christmas feel.
Even more in keeping with a traditional "packaged American Xmas" were delightful compositions at "Sprout" whose shop is in Worcester, Mass. Almost all the visual elements of a consumer-oriented Christmas are there, from ornate packaging and high production values, and yet most items, other than flowers, are recycled. Again no red to be found!! And the author created a delightful slogan for Christmas, which although quite secular, is endowed with far more spirituality than most tributes I have seen in many a year.
"Re-Use; Recycle; Rejoice".

Image 3 and Image 4 from Miss Pickering's Blog,
the use of whose images I am grateful. Great blog too.
Image 5 and Image 6 from Sprout, great site also. I am grateful for the use of her images. The stockings were made from recycled sweaters from a Thrift store.

I love it.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


A fairly useful item for the florist are the various members of the Ornithogalum family. For years the variety that we have come to accept as "Star-of-Bethlehem" is what is actually classified as O. Thyrsoiides, and in fact this unwieldy name is becoming more prevalent in everyday usage. This is due to the fact that there are several other varieties that are being grown commercially and which are now available as a cut flower, and some of the terms were becoming ridiculous , especially "Arabic Star-of-Bethlehem". 
On top of that the flower that is called "Star-of-Bethlehem" by the rest of the horticulture world (as distinct from the cut-flower industry), is a species known as O. umbellatum, a rather lank flower with small, thin petalled flowers and which is not particularly attractive. Furthermore, before the flower received a rather modern makeover of it's nomenclature, it was referred to as Dove's Dung:                                     

"And there was a great famine in Samaria: and behold, they besieged it, until an ass's head was sold for fourscore pieces of silver, and the  fourth part of a cab of dove's dung for five pieces of silver."
2 KINGS 6:25

The name apparently arose from the spectacle of the white flowers glistening upon the open fields of Palestine which apparently and, rather unpoetical, was said to resemble bird droppings. A lot of them! Certainly the Greek word Ornithogalum is more genteel, and is translated as "Bird's Milk". In biblical times the bulbs of these flowers were used as a foodstuff, either roasted or dried and conserved. They were frequently used by Muslims on their pilgrimages to Mecca.
The varieties most common today are the pure white O. Thyrsoiides with the flowers clustered in a terminal raceme or spike; the tall O. Arabicum with creamy flowers and almost black ovaries clustered in a corymb; O. Saundersiae which is very similar to the Arabicum; and the brightly colored O. dubium which until recently was available in Orange and Yellow. A new cultivar O. dubium "White" has been introduced to the commercial cut flower markets, which is a welcome addition to the family. The flowers are distinctly larger than other Ornithogalums with some dark markings at the base of the petals, creating an 'eye' when the flowers open. In the middle image the new cultivar is juxtaposed with the O. Thyrsoiides to give a sense of the relative size of the petals and the flowers. The flowers themselves are loaded on terminal racemes, and when fully open create a generous display. In the vase test the comported themselves very well and proved to be long-lasting and very hardy.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


It seems the Christmas season is in full swing, and even down here in Miami, Florida, a cold front has brought very chilly but seasonally appropriate weather. When one is bundled up with sweaters, jackets scarves and hats one can't but help feel in the mood. Christmas lights adorn many of the houses, along with a trend I could do without, which is that of the inflatable lawn decorations. In Miami there are clearly rivalries developing as to who can have the most inflatables in front of their house. I suppose the owners mean well but they are hideous. And large. But hey, its Christmastime.
In the floral industry many people are busily engaged in selling hard goods and Christmas greens, trees, wreaths and garlands. Cut flower sales are somewhat limited at present, but over the next couple of weeks sales will increase. Unfortunately, the focus is entirely on red and white flowers, which is somewhat perverse, because flowers come in all colors and hues, and consequently there is a dire shortage of some flowers in these two colors with correspondingly high prices, and an almost criminal oversupply of pastels tones and bright primary colors. But hey, its Christmastime.
One thing that always becomes scarce at this time is the supply of red roses, and this year is certainly no exception. This is because demand is very high during this time, and it also coincides with the "pinch" of the red rose plants by growers for the Valentine's Day holiday. (For an explanation of the "pinch" see article below). Combine the high demand, with the Valentine's pinch and sprinkle in the rather inclement weather in Colombia and Ecuador, and we may see red rose prices rival, and even surpass, those of Valentine;s before the season is out. Varieties such as the currently popular "Freedom" and the august "Forever Young" are extremely scarce so you may want to look at some other, lesser known varieties. This is also a good opportunity to familiarize one self with new red varieties prior to V-Day as well.

Last week I did a vase test on "Red Paris", a recent introduction from Dutch breeder OlijRozen. First impressions were that it is a very robust product, with excellent stems and strong, but graceless, peduncles. The thorns are quite prominent, especially lower down, and do need to be cleaned with care. This rose will not fail you in terms of arching or bending stems, nor even drooping heads, provided the flowers have been properly hydrated. The rose itself opens in a promising way, but stops at about halfway from what I would consider a full reflex. "Red Paris" is a rich dark red, with a glossy, light velvet finish, and very reminiscent of First Red. It would appear to a very useful rose for production work, as it is strong, but it lacks the grace and flair that I look for in a flower.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


It seems the name for the "El Nino" climate phenomenon was coined by fishermen from Ecuador and Peru in the 17th century, because it seemed to always occur at Christmas time. "El Nino" is the hispanic term for Jesus Christ, and is literally translated as "Little Child" or "Little Boy". My understanding of this phenomenon is that it occurs when the normally warm surface water of the Eastern Pacific Ocean is blown west and the cold water is allowed to rise to the surface, aided by the Humboldt current which brings cold water from the Southern Pacific. Then tropical winds blowing eastwards, in contrast to the usual direction of the South Pacific Trade Winds, drives water from the ocean which results in unusually large amounts of precipitation in the Andean nations of Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. Or is that "La Nina"?
I have been researching the unusual amount of rain occurring in Colombia which has resulted in massive flooding that continues into December, and which is repeatedly attributed to be a result of the "La Nina" phenomenon. Not one single source can provide a succinct and unambiguous definition, as all the explanations end with caveats stating words to the effect of 'no one is really sure' about these effects, and on top of that many of the meteorological sources are frustratingly vague.
Not to worry, lets just gloss that part over, as I can report that around the world in 2010 unusually powerful winds from the Northern and Southern hemisphere were meeting at the equatorial belt, causing massive updraughts and moving spectacular amounts of water into the atmosphere. And as we have seen on news reports on all media, equally spectacular amounts of precipitation have caused disastrous flooding in Pakistan, Thailand, Colombia and Nigeria, to name a few. During the month of November in Colombia floods  caused 161 persons to lose their lives, 1.3 million people have lost their homes or sustained significant damage to them and an estimated $2.5 billion in total losses is said to have occurred. 

In stark contrast, unusual climate changes occurring in Siberia are such that this November was the warmest that has ever been recorded!

I highlight this problem, particularly with respect to our upcoming Valentine's Day in 2011. Throughout our industry there has been much discussion and opinion about the shortage of some flowers as well as their reciprocal increase in prices. I outlined the main reasons for this in an earlier article (October 18th read here) and certainly weather has been one of the problems, but going forward from now until February it seems that a wet, rainy and cold climate will engender many problems for the rose supply, as well as that of gypsophilia and most flowers grown in Colombia, and to a  lesser extent in Ecuador.
The good news is that there is almost a zero probability of a freeze this year.

The principal problem that I foresee for this Valentine 2011 will be that of quality, rather than one of supply, although issues with the former will have some effect on the latter. But the fact that quality will most likely be compromised leads one to some troubling conclusions, not least of which is that many Roses entering the marketplace will not be of export grade. But lets look at why the products from many rose farms will be compromised:
Many rose plantations are experiencing dire cash flow problems due to a variety of reasons attributable to the poor economy, as well as because the Colombian Peso remains fairly strong against the US Dollar. Quite a few farms had been promised loans by the Colombian Dept. of Agriculture but this aid was withdrawn after a scandal involving monies furnished to Falcon Farms and Florandina by the Colombian government was used in an allegedly fraudulent manner.
Without adequate financing, amicable agreements with vendors and suppliers and/or good cash flow the ability of farms to grow and maintain healthy, vigorous plants is circumspect. Realise that the rose plants projected to be used for Valentine's production, which will be all the reds, most of the pinks and a few select colors (minus those required for standing orders), have all been pinched* and will produce three, maybe four stems of roses for the holiday. To effectively produce three times as many flowers as normal, the plant will need a commensurate amount of fertilization, as well as more labor to care and groom the plants as necessary. And this is in a good climate.
Given that it has been raining in the Sabana of Colombia for what seems like months on end, and it is forecast to keep raining through February, the rose farms now face two more issues for which they need money: First of all, with the almost permanent layer of cloud cover obscuring the sun, the luminosity that the plants would normally enjoy is seriously compromised, which leads to a drop-off in productivity. This can be partially offset by feeding the plants more than normal, which should result in a yield more or less commensurate with expectations. Unfortunately, even though the fecundity of the plants may be satisfactory, without sun the rose stems tend to stretch as they reach for light. As such, plants will produce roses with 70cm stem lengths but with a stem diameter and strength appropriate to the quality parameters expected of a 40cm rose. An exigent and quality conscious rose farm will, of course, cut these stems down to the appropriate length. As well as issues with stem length, the low light levels cause the stems to 'wander', resulting in crooked and twisted stems. Furthermore these same atrocious conditions of will also negatively impact the head size, and may diminish the petal count. Usually, both these defects would cause a rose to be graded out for domestic consumption and would not enter the export inventory. Usually!
Secondly, with the copious amounts of rain and continued cloud cover expected in Colombia and Ecuador during the entire three months the roses are in production for Valentine's, the low luminosity and high humidity create the perfect environment for diseases and pests to wreak havoc. More pesticides and anti-fungal fumigation's need to be applied than usual, with extra vigilance needed as this is the most valuable crop of the year. Because of the pinch, wherein three months of production was sacrificed to ensure that an increased yield will flush at the end of January, the plants are functioning under stress in less than an optimum environment. Again, the increased amount of vegetative growth means that more labor is needed to be vigilant for incidence of disease, especially for Downy Mildew, Powdery Mildew and Botrytis and also infestations of Spider Mites.

It does not take much to figure out that the top rose farms with good management, a sound financial footing and professional integrity will be generally impervious to the issues outlined above, except for the problem of filling all their orders. But how many of those farms are there, really? Not enough, that's for sure.
Rose farms in Colombia and Ecuador will be doing the very best that they can, and with no malice aforethought, but the facts are that with out sufficient financial resources strict fertilization and phyto-sanitary programs cannot be maintained. And this will lead to a serious compromising of quality. Most of these lesser quality products will come to the USA as, unfortunately, the US flower industry is generally considered to be a largely uneducated marketplace with an overemphasis placed on price.
Rose growers will be shipping their best roses to their most knowledgeable clients, as well as those paying the best price. In Ecuador this means a lot of these will be going to Europe and Russia, as well as some select importers and wholesalers in the USA. This is because Ecuadorian roses are considered among the best in the world. Of late, only 29% of all Ecuadorian roses on an annual basis come to the USA, although at Valentine's percentage-wise it is a little higher. Colombia sends a little under 90% of its rose production to the USA, so one can see that given the litany of problems in Colombia, it appears inevitable that the overall quality of roses available to US consumers will be compromised.My conclusion is that there will be a good supply of roses, but that good quality products will be quite scarce.

Therefore, I urge you to consider your flower purchases with diligence, not just for Valentine's Day but for the rest of the year. Learn about the products that you work with, ascertain what the internationally recognised grading standards are for the flowers that you use, establish meaningful relationships with wholesalers, vendors, growers and such, who can provide you not only with products but with knowledge.
Yes, roses, carnations, peonies, hydrangeas, in fact, probably all flowers will cost a bit more next year, so it behooves you to buy them from a company or individual who can provide you with provenance** and knowledge. And a fair price, too!

*Pinch - Term used to denote the cutting back of rose canes to promote a vigorous flush of several stems of roses at a later date. The lower one cuts on a rose plant, then fewer stems are promoted but they tend to be very long and of high quality. The higher up on the plant one cuts the rose back, the more stems are produced but are shorter and of lesser quality. Therefore the 'pinch' is a compromise of yield balanced with quality. While the bush is pinched there is no production of roses on that plant until harvest. Also note that after Valentine's the plant is effectively 'pinched' again, which explains the dearth of product in February and March. Ecuador is pinching less and less, in order to have high quality roses year round - another factor contibuting to the scarcity of top quality products for Valentine's Day.

**Provenance - A term generally used in the Art World, and especially that of Antiquities, to denote that an item has a traceable history and/or a clear and legal origin. I use it here to emphasize that it should be part of a flower buyer's routine to ascertain origin of a product, the grower perhaps, how it was shipped, when it was shipped, when it was harvested, was the cold-chain maintained and so forth. Professional wholesalers will be happy to be engaged in a process of edification, as after all they are really partners in your success.
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