A Rose is Not a Rose

A Rose is Not a Rose

Long the symbol of love, irresistible desire, and ephemeral beauty, the prickliest of flowers has never been so popular, so lucrative-or so toxic for the environment. But enterprising growers and marketers are working to turn the red rose green.

By Charles Bergman/ Photography by Pablo Corral Vega
Published: January-February 2008

In a field of baby's breath, Duran proudly showed me the insect-sweeping vacuums. "I'm happy to see organic is possible," he said. "Our children and grandchildren will reap the harvest."

In California I made a trip to B&H Flowers, a VeriFlora-certified farm on the coast south of Santa Barbara. Its owner, Hans Brand, developed his love of flowers as a child in Holland. Together we walked through greenhouses filled with the brilliant colors of Gerber daisies--red and orange and yellow. "It's not easy to make all the changes to be certified," he told me. "It was scary at first, but it's a better product for all involved."

In the greenhouses Brand introduced me to one of his workers, a man named Alberto Arroyo. About 10 years ago at a company barbecue, Brand offered him and all of his other Hispanic employees--about two-thirds of his workforce--a raise if they would learn English. Many of those who accepted the challenge went on to management positions in Brand's company. Arroyo is now the manager of biological pest control. Among rows of ruby-colored Gerber daisies, he showed me blue flags marking flowers with insects that he was working to eliminate, using natural means. "I like to play with bugs," Arroyo explained, smiling self-consciously.

A few days later I explored an organic farm north of San Diego. In 1999 Armando Garcia left the University of San Diego and asked his dad if he could market all the products from the family's organic farm instead of just selling at one market once a week. Now Garcia's farm, which was certified in 1991, is a thriving business. "These trees have never seen a pesticide," Garcia told me proudly.

At 29 he is the hip, young face of the organic movement, sporting a goatee and dressed in a black T-shirt and baseball cap. His mother, he said, is the farm's "rose queen." Bucking agribusiness's leaning toward monocultures, Garcia grows close to 100 different kinds of fruits, from oranges to peaches, figs to avocados. Most of his roses go to restaurants and consumers for cookies, ice cream, and wedding cakes. "You can eat anything on my farm," he said. "Smell 'em. They're real roses."

As I sniffed a rose called a Fragrant Cloud, I realized it was humming with bees. That's when it really hit me: These were not industrial flowers; this farm was also living habitat. Anna's hummingbirds flashed red heads and throats amid the flowers. A red-shouldered hawk screamed in the cloudless blue sky. A blue grosbeak shimmered in the sun on a wire above the mulberries.

Considerable research proves that organic practices benefit wildlife. A 2005 study in the Journal of Applied Ecology reviewed 66 studies and found that, on average, birds and other animals "were 50 percent more abundant on organic farming systems" compared with conventional ones. Eighty-four percent of the studies showed that there are more species of plants, birds, and insects on organic farms.

The Garcia property offered absolute proof. "Do you see mountain lions here?" I asked him.

"Once," he said. "Sometimes we see bobcats."

As if by magic, 15 minutes later a bobcat sauntered out of a grove of Meiwa kumquats right in front of us, crossed the dirt road, and sat in the shadow of Fremont tangerines. Looking at us with casual disregard, the cat's golden eyes reflected brightly in the shade, and its ears stood erect. Here was the climax of my quest: a living reason to buy certified-organic flowers, further enhanced by the skies overhead, dotted with hummingbirds, hawks, and grosbeaks.

As the bobcat ambled off, Garcia said simply, "Organic is the future. People and animals like it more."

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