The state flower is

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Plant of the Week: Mistletoe

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture does not promote, support or recommend plants featured in “Plant of the Week.” Please consult your local Extension office for plants suitable for your region.

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Latin: Phoradendron serotinum

Christmas, that holiest of Christian holidays, is bedecked with layer after layer of religious tradition and legend. No other holiday has such a rich association with plants as the yuletide season. One of these plants, the mistletoe, is an odd choice for use during the holidays, because it doesn’t grow anywhere near the Holy Land and it’s a parasite.
The common eastern American mistletoe is one of 900 species of parasitic, mostly evergreen shrubs that occur throughout the world. Our native mistletoe grows throughout the state but is more common in low lying ground that is prone to have high humidity.
It will invade any number of deciduous tree species but is most common on elms. Oaks, especially the upland species, are seldom mistletoe victims.
Mistletoe grows in balls the size of a bushel basket and can reach up to 90 pounds in weight. It has male and female plants with only the female plants producing the familiar pea sized white berries. Flowers appear in late summer with the berries present over winter. The berries are considered poisonous but a large quantity would have to be consumed to cause any significant ill effect. Certainly they should be kept out of children’s reach.
The pulp of the berry is a sticky mass that adheres to the feet and feathers of birds as they feed. Once the seed is deposited on a branch it will germinate in spring if moisture conditions are right.
The root tip, instead of growing into the ground, forms an attachment point called a haustorium which functions as an umbilical cord with the host tree. The tree provides the parasite with the water and mineral nutrients it needs, but the mistletoe does its own photosynthesis.
The use of mistletoe as a part of the holiday season is one of those pesky pagan rituals that was retreaded to fit the conventions of the Christian era. Before Christians, the Druids of Britain used boughs of the mistletoe for a midwinter ceremony performed five days after the first full moon after the winter solstice. Boughs were cut by the priest and distributed to the citizens to be hung over the entryway of their homes to ward off bad luck.
After the Christian religion spread throughout the British Isles the use of mistletoe was frowned upon, but religious leaders had no objection to substituting holly boughs for the purpose.
During the Victorian era, the British revived the tradition of using mistletoe as a part of Christmas legend, but spiced it up with a little Viking mythology. This is where the kissing part comes in.
It seems that according to Viking myth, Balder, the god of the summer sun, was killed by an arrow made from a mistletoe branch. His adoring mother, beseeching all the elements of nature to bring back her son-god, had her wish granted (after three days coincidentally) and forgave the mistletoe for its part in the treachery. So delighted, she decreed that all who passed beneath a tree bearing mistletoe should receive a kiss and no harm befall them.
My own experience with mistletoe began in grade school where I learned it was the state flower of Oklahoma. Mistletoe was selected as the state flower while Oklahoma was still Indian Territory.
The Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 sent out a call for all states to send in a state flower. Oklahoma had tentatively selected the passion flower, but found that Arkansas was sending it in as their state flower (ten years later Arkansas selected the apple blossom as it’s state flower), so instead it selected mistletoe.
Mistletoe, used to decorate graves in winter and runner-up, passion flower, both reflect the Bible Belt thinking of citizens making the selection. The officials at the World’s Fair were so surprised that mistletoe grew in Oklahoma — I guess they didn’t think there were any trees in the state — they ordered a boxcar of boughs and Oklahoma became an exporter of mistletoe to the rest of the country.
Does mistletoe hurt your tree? Probably, but in human terms, its more like athlete’s foot than cancer. In really extreme cases it can kill or significantly disfigure a tree, but usually it is just considered unsightly.
Control can be achieved only by pruning out the offending branches. Cutting off the mistletoe branches is like pruning a hedge and does nothing to eliminate the parasite. In recent years, a midwinter spray of Florel — a plant growth regulator which releases ethylene — has been used as an effective spray treatment to rid plants of infestations.

By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist – Ornamentals
Extension News

The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.

What is My State Flower?

We present a list of the 50 states and their flowers; for more information, visit The United States National Arboretum. Since ancient times, civic leaders have used flowers and flower images as symbols of thriving communities. In fact, you might say flowers were an early form of advertising. And while there’s no shortage of commercials in modern America, we still tap flowers for their unparalleled prowess in communication, with each state in the union proudly claiming an official state flower.

State flowers are mostly a native flower which originated in the respective geographical zone.

A guide to state flowers, from peony and prairie rose to poppy and pine.

Alabama: Camellia. Native to Asia, camellias are known throughout the world for their elegance and grace.

Alaska: Forget-me-not. This summer-blooming perennial makes a lasting impression.

Arizona: Saguaro Cactus Blossom. Bursts of arresting beauty in a hot, dry climate.

Arkansas: Apple Blossom. Its pale pink loveliness is synonymous with spring. Officially designated in 1901.

California: California Poppy. The Golden State’s vivid symbol.

Colorado: Rocky Mountain Columbine. School children chose this wildflower, which blooms in several pastel shades, in 1899.

Connecticut: Mountain Laurel. This pink and white blossom has a lovely smell.

Delaware: Peach Blossom. A natural choice for a grower of peach trees.

Florida: Orange Blossom. Fresh, fragrant and very fitting for the Sunshine State.

Georgia: Cherokee Rose. Officially designated in 1916.

Hawaii: Hibiscus. A magnificent flower that evokes the tropics.

Idaho: Mock Orange. This deciduous shrub produces a stunning white flower.

Illinois: Purple Violet. The 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago spurred states to choose emblematic flowers. Illinois made the violet its official selection in 1908.

Indiana: Peony. This luscious bloom has long been associated with prosperity.

Iowa: Wild Prairie Rose. A rugged version of the regal favorite. Adopted in 1897.

Kansas: Sunflower. One of the most iconic of all flowers.

Kentucky: Goldenrod. The bright yellow flowering plants have represented Kentucky since 1926.

Louisiana: Magnolia. Stately and serene, magnolias are a treat for the senses. Magnolia was designated as Louisiana’s state flower in 1900.

Maine: White Pine Tassel and Cone. The only state flower that is not really a flower.

Maryland: Black-eyed Susan. These perennials are members of the sunflower family.

Massachusetts: Mayflower. Its white flowers seem to convey Pilgrim-like purity.

Michigan: Apple Blossom. Chosen as an emblem in 1897. Michigan is still a major apple grower today.

Minnesota: Pink and White Ladyslipper. One of 43 orchid species that grow in Minnesota.

Mississippi: Magnolia. The flower received its official designation in 1952.

Missouri: Hawthorn. The beautiful white flower of the hawthorn tree was selected as state flower in 1923.

Montana: Bitterroot. Long used by Native Americans, the plant was brought to wider fame by explorers Lewis and Clark.

Nebraska: Goldenrod. The state’s floral symbol since 1895.

Nevada: Sagebrush. An ideal choice for the Sagebrush State.

New Hampshire: Purple Lilac. According to historian Leon Anderson, purple lilac reflects the hardy nature of those in the Granite State.

New Jersey: Violet. Officially designated in 1971.

New Mexico: Yucca. Also known as “Lamparas de dios” (Lamps of the Lord) because of its brilliant white flowers.

New York: Rose. Named state flower in 1955.

North Carolina: Flowering Dogwood. Selected from a number of other flowers, the delicate white blossom won the title in 1941.

North Dakota: Wild Prairie Rose. Officially designated in 1907.

Ohio: Scarlet Carnation. Among the most resilient and sturdiest of flowers.

Oklahoma: Mistletoe. Steeped in lore, the mistletoe in this case evokes the endurance of those who settled the land.

Oregon: Oregon Grape. A glorious yellow-flowered plant that’s native to the Pacific Coast.

Pennsylvania: Mountain Laurel. The governor chose this pink and white bloom in 1933.

Rhode Island: Violet. Officially designated in 1968.

South Carolina: Yellow Jessamine. Fragrant and fertile, it grows abundantly throughout the state.

South Dakota: Pasque Flower. Part of the buttercup family and a harbinger of spring.

Tennessee: Iris. Said to represent faith, valor and wisdom.

Texas: Texas Bluebonnet. Wildflowers with rich captivating color.

Utah: Sego Lily. Its beauty is both simple and exotic.

Vermont: Red Clover. A bright and cheerful floral symbol.

Virginia: Flowering Dogwood. Officially designated in 1918.

Washington: Coast Rhododendron. Lush and lovely, the flower gets its name from the Greek words for rose (rhodos) and tree (dendron). Picked in 1892.

West Virginia: Rhododendron. Adopted in 1903.

Wisconsin: Violet. Selected in 1909, it was not officially designated until 1949.

Wyoming: Indian Paintbrush. This vibrant perennial grows in many western states.

Names Of Flowers

U.S. State Flowers

Below you will find an easy to use list of all the lovely US state flowers. A state flower is a carefully chosen and important symbol of a particular state that reflects an appreciation for the natural floral beauty of that state.

Some of the details that you can discover about a state flower include the scientific name, geographic origin, description, important characteristics, different flower types, cultivation, care, and uses of the state flower. Useful information about keeping away troublesome pests appears in the care section. The uses section contains interesting explanations on the varied uses of each state flower. More photographs of the US state flowers on the list are shown in lovely colored pictures at the bottom of each detail page.
To access these interesting details about a state flower, simply click on the highlighted More about the State Flower link that appears in a state’s box, and enjoy learning more about each particular flower on the US state flowers list!



State Flower


More about the Alabama State Flower…



More about the Alaska State Flower…



Blossom of the Saguaro Cactus


Apple Blossom


More about the California State Flower…

Golden Poppy


More about the Colorado State Flower…

Rocky Mountain Columbine


Mountain Laurel


Peach Blossom

District of Columbia

American Beauty Rose


Orange Blossom


Cherokee Rose


More about the Hawaii State Flower…

Yellow Hibiscus




Native Violet


More about the Indiana State Flower…



Wild Rose


More about the Kansas State Flower…

Native Sunflower




More about the Louisiana State Flower…



White Pine Cone and Tassel


Black-eyed Susan




Apple Blossom


Pink and White Lady’s Slipper











New Hampshire

More about the New Hampshire State Flower…

Purple Lilac

New Jersey

Purple Violet

New Mexico


New York

More about the New York State Flower…


North Carolina


North Dakota

Wild Prairie Rose


More about the Ohio State Flower…

Scarlet Carnation


More about the Oklahoma State Flower…



Oregon Grape


Mountain Laurel

Rhode Island


South Carolina

Yellow Jessamine

South Dakota



More about the Tennessee State Flower…



More about the Texas State Flower…



More about the Utah State Flower…

Sego Lily


Red Clover




More about the Washington State Flower…

Western Rhododendron

West Virginia

More about the West Virginia State Flower…

Big Rhododendron


Wood Violet


Indian Paintbrush

All 50 Official State Flowers

We all remember learning about our state symbols in elementary school. Every state in the U.S. has an official state flower. And, as a bonus, even Washington, D.C., has an official flower—the ‘American Beauty’ rose. The rose is also considered the official flower of the United States. Some flowers were selected for their hardiness in the state, while others were selected for looks alone. However they were picked, state flowers were selected to represent the people and the essence of each individual state. Check out yours and the others in your region.


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Connecticut: Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia)

Delaware: Peach blossom (Prunus persica)

Maine: White pine cone and tassel (Pinus strobus, linnaeus)

Maryland: Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

Massachusetts: Trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens)

New Hampshire: Purple lilac (Syringa vulgaris)

New Jersey: Violet (Viola sororia)

New York: Rose (Rosa)

Rhode Island: Violet (Viola)

Vermont: Red clover (Trifolium pratense)

Washington, D.C.: ‘American Beauty’ rose (Rosa)


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Alabama: Camellia (Camellia)

Arkansas: Apple blossom (Pyrus coronaria)

Florida: Orange blossom (Citrus sinensis)

Georgia: Cherokee rose (Rosa laevigata)

Kentucky: Goldenrod (Solidago altissima)

Louisiana: Magnolia (Magnolia)

Mississippi: Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora)

North Carolina: American dogwood (Cornus florida)

South Carolina: Yellow jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens)

Tennessee: Iris (Iridaceae)

Virginia: American dogwood (Cornus florida)

West Virginia: Rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum)


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Illinois: Purple violet (Viola)

Indiana: Peony (Peony)

Iowa: Wild prairie rose (Rosa pratincola)

Kansas: Sunflower (Helianthus annuus)

Michigan: Apple blossom (Pyrus coronaria)

Minnesota: Pink and white lady’s-slipper (Cypripedium reginae)

Missouri: Hawthorn (Crataegus)

Nebraska: Goldenrod (Solidago gigantea)

North Dakota: Wild prairie rose (Rosa arkansana)

Ohio: Scarlet carnation (Dianthus caryophyllus)

South Dakota: Pasque flower (Pulsatilla hirsutissima)

Wisconsin: Wood violet (Viola papilionacea)

Mountain West

Image zoom Aquilegia; Columbine Image zoom Image zoom

Colorado: Rocky Mountain columbine (Aquilegia caerules)

Idaho: Mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii)

Montana: Bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva)

Nevada: Sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata)

Utah: Sego lily (Calochortus gunnisonii)

Wyoming: Indian paintbrush (Castilleja linariaefolia)

Pacific Northwest

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California: California poppy (Eschscholtzia californica)

Oregon: Oregon grape (Berberis aquifolium)

Washington: Coast rhododendron (Rhododendrum macrophyllum)


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Arizona: Saguaro cactus blossom (Carnegiea gigantea)

New Mexico: Yucca flower (Yucca glauca)

Oklahoma: Mistletoe (Phoradendron serotinum)

Texas: Bluebonnet (Lupinus)


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Alaska: Forget-me-not (Myosotis alpestris)

Hawaii: Pua aloalo (Hibiscus brackenridgei)

  • By Jenny Krane

What is the State Flower of Florida?

The Orange Blossoms or Citrus x sinensis is the state flower of Florida. Its scientific name is The Orange Blossoms or Citrus x sinensis. It belongs to Rutaceae family (citrus family). Citrus is the genus of the Orange Blossoms and its species is C.x sinensis. Florida’s state flower The Orange Blossoms or Citrus x sinensis is commonly known as Citrus sinensis, orange or sweet orange sour orange, C. aurantium, and mandarin orange, C. reticulata that derived in southern China, where it has been cultivated for millennia. Now a day, Orange or Citrus sinensis have been commercially grown throughout the world’s tropical, semi-tropical, and some warm temperate regions and also the most extensively planted fruit tree in the world. Orange is the world’s most popular fruit, which being eaten fresh and juice form.

Three things are most admired to the people of Florida and these three are; the image of sunshine, the beaches and obviously the third one is Florida Orange. Being the flower of the mostly choice full fruit the orange blossoms been easily judged as the only nominee for state flower emblem. On the basis of the above and without any surprise The Florida General Assembly has been designated the Orange Blossoms or Citrus x sinensis as the state floral emblem of Florida on November 15, 1909.

State Flower of Florida Facts:

  • Common Name: Citrus sinensis, orange or sweet orange sour orange, C. aurantium, and mandarin orange, C. reticulata
  • Genus: Citrus
  • Species: Citrus sinensis.
  • Found in: All over the world
  • Color: Pinkish white
  • Number of petals: 5
  • Period of blooming: Spring
  • Purpose: Fruit
  • Symbolism: Distinctive beauty

Florida’s state flower orange blossoms or Citrus sinensis plant of small, spiny tree, characteristically growing to 7.5 m (25 ft), but rarely reaching heights up to 15 m (50 ft), commonly with a dense crown grows in full sun and sandy soil. It thrives in Florida, thanks to its climate and classically plentiful rainfall. Leaves of the orange blossoms trees are evergreen and leathery with a range from egg-shaped to oblong to oval, 6.5-15 cm long and 2.5-9.5 cm wide in size, frequently with slender wings on the leaf stems. Florida is the prevalent grower of oranges in the United States.

The scent of innumerable flowering Orange Blossoms fills the air of Florida in every spring. It is generating white Orange Blossoms, which are made up by five waxy petals and give off a sweet, fragrant scent. After one month of the appearance of its blossoms, the tree of orange bears its fruit, which is commonly, entitle the sweet or navel orange. The orange may be globe-shape to oval and it becomes yellow from green as and when it ripens.

Further than its pleasant appearance and romantic image, Florida’s state flower is also commercially valuable. There are plenty of products are made from the flowers including an essential oil, which is every so often used in natural skin care products and in aromatherapy. Honeybees also make a preferred product from the flower and it is the orange blossom honey. Its flavor and mild taste are making it a popular treat.

The flower of the orange tree is one of the most odorous blooms in Florida. There are millions of white blossoms from orange trees fragrance the air of central and southern Florida during the time of flourishing. It has also been recognized the orange as official state fruit and orange juice as the state beverage of Florida.

On the influx of the Orange Blossom that symbolizes a ground for Floridians to celebrate. The flower lovers of Davie, a small town north of Miami to celebrate the arrival of the Florida state flower with the Orange Blossom Festival. The renown is the three-day rodeo and music event celebrates Florida’s agricultural history

To sum up, Orange Blossoms or Citrus sinensis is the state flower of Florida that symbolizes distinctive beauty and also the spirit of the state that makes it as the state flower of Florida.


State Flowers

In 1919, the General Assembly, by Senate Joint Resolution 13, provided that a state flower be chosen by the schoolchildren of Tennessee. Accordingly, a vote was taken, and the passion flower, Passiflora incarnata, was chosen. In 1933, however, the Legislature adopted Senate Joint Resolution 53 designating the iris as the “State Flower of Tennessee,” but failed to formally rescind the designation of the passion flower as the state flower. To eliminate this confusion, in 1973, the 88th General Assembly, by Public Chapter 16, designated the passion flower the state wildflower and the iris the state cultivated flower. In 2012, the 107th General Assembly added Tennessee Echinacea, Echinacea tennesseensis, as an official state wildflower (Public Chapter 829).

State Wildflowers

The passion flower grows wild in the southern part of the United States and in South America. It is also commonly known as the maypop, the wild apricot, and the ocoee. The last is the Indian name given to the flower, a name that has also been applied to the Ocoee River and valley. The Indians prized the ocoee as the most abundant and beautiful of all their flowers. The passion flower is so named because of the early Christian missionaries to South America who saw in the various parts of the curiously constructed flower symbols of the Crucifixion—the three crosses, the crown of thorns, nails, and cords.

Tennessee Echinacea, also known as the Tennessee coneflower or Tennessee purple coneflower, is one of the few plants that thrive only in the limestone and cedar glades of Middle Tennessee. It was thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered in the late 1960s. Due to conservancy efforts, land was purchased to protect the flower, and the species recovered. The flower features a daisy-like coneflower with rose-purple petals and a spiny copper-colored center and generally blooms from mid-spring until mid-autumn.

State Cultivated Flower

The iris, family Iridaceae, was designated the official state cultivated flower in 1973 by the 88th General Assembly (Public Chapter 16). The iris is a herbaceous perennial of which there are about 170 species, the most common of which is the Blue Flag. While there are several different colors among the iris, the act naming the iris as the state flower did not name a particular color. By common acceptance, the purple iris is considered the state cultivated flower.

The Rose

National Flower of the United States

The rose was designated the official flower and floral emblem of the United States of America in 1986.

The rose is a symbol of love and beauty (as well as war and politics) the world over. Each of the 50 states has also adopted an official state flower, including the rose in New York, the Oklahoma rose in Oklahoma, the Cherokee rose in Georgia, and the wild prairie rose in Iowa and North Dakota. All State Flowers

The rose has been around for about 35 million years and grows naturally throughout North America. Roses are red, pink, white, or yellow and can have a wonderfully rich aroma. The petals and rose hips are edible and have been used in medicines since ancient times. Rose hips (the fruit of the rose which forms at base of the flower) are eaten in winter by wild birds and other animals.

The rose has played an important role in myth, history, and poetry from ancient times to the present.

Native Marigold – Proposed U.S. Floral Emblem

There is support for designating the native marigold as official floral emblem for the United States. One proponent (Everett Dirksen) made a colorful argument in 1967:

Mr. President:

On January 8, 1965, I introduced Senate Joint Resolution 19, to designate the American marigold as the national floral emblem of the United States. Today I am introducing the same resolution with the suggestion that it again be referred to the Committee on the Judiciary.

  • The American flag is not a mere assembly of colors, stripes and stars but it in fact symbolizes our origin, development and growth.
  • The American eagle, king of the skies is so truly representing of our might and power.
  • A national floral emblem should represent the virtues of our land and be national in character.
  • The marigold is a native of North America and can in truth and in fact be called an American flower.
  • It is national in character, for it grows and thrives in every one of the fifty states of this nation. It conquers the extremes of temperature. It well withstands the summer sun and the evening chill.
  • Its robustness reflects the hardihood and character of the generations who pioneered and built this land into a great nation. It is not temperamental about fertility. It resists its natural enemies, the insects. It is self-reliant and requires little attention. Its spectacular colors – lemon and orange, rich brown and deep mahogany – befit the imaginative qualities of this nation.
  • It is as sprightly as the daffodil, as colorful as the rose, as resolute as the zinnia, as delicate as the carnation, as haughty as the chrysanthemum, as aggressive as the petunia, as ubiquitous as the violet, and as stately as the snapdragon.
  • It beguiles the senses and ennobles the spirit of man. It is the delight of the amateur gardener and a constant challenge to the professional.
  • Since it is native to America and nowhere else in the world, and common to every state in the Union, I present the American marigold for designation as the national floral emblem of our country.”

In 1967 David Cheever, a graduate student in horticulture at Colorado State University, wrote a term paper titled “Bogotá, Colombia as a Cut-Flower Exporter for World Markets.” The paper suggested that the savanna near Colombia’s capital was an ideal place to grow flowers to sell in the United States. The savanna is a high plain fanning out from the Andean foothills, about 8,700 feet above sea level and 320 miles north of the Equator, and close to both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Those circumstances, Cheever wrote, create a pleasant climate with little temperature variation and consistent light, about 12 hours per day year-round—ideal for a crop that must always be available. A former lakebed, the savanna also has dense, clay-rich soil and networks of wetlands, tributaries and waterfalls left after the lake receded 100,000 years ago. And, Cheever noted, Bogotá was just a three-hour flight from Miami—closer to East Coast customers than California, the center of the U.S. flower industry.

After graduating, Cheever put his theories into practice. He and three partners invested $25,000 apiece to start a business in Colombia called Floramérica, which applied assembly-line practices and modern shipping techniques at greenhouses close to Bogotá’s El Dorado International Airport. The company started with carnations. “We did our first planting in October of 1969, for Mother’s Day 1970, and we hit it right on the money,” says Cheever, 72, who is retired and lives in Medellín, Colombia, and New Hampshire.

It’s not often that a global industry springs from a school assignment, but Cheever’s paper and business efforts started an economic revolution in Colombia. A few other growers had exported flowers to the United States, but Floramérica turned it into a big business. Within five years of Floramérica’s debut at least ten more flower-growing companies were operating on the savanna, exporting some $16 million in cut flowers to the United States. By 1991, the World Bank reported, the industry was “a textbook story of how a market economy works.” Today, the country is the world’s second-largest exporter of cut flowers, after the Netherlands, shipping more than $1 billion in blooms. Colombia now commands about 70 percent of the U.S. market; if you buy a bouquet in a supermarket, big-box store or airport kiosk, it probably came from the Bogotá savanna.

This growth took place in a country ravaged by political violence for most of the 20th century and by the cocaine trade since the 1980s, and it came with significant help from the United States. To limit coca farming and expand job opportunities in Colombia, the U.S. government in 1991 suspended import duties on Colombian flowers. The results were dramatic, though disastrous for U.S. growers. In 1971, the United States produced 1.2 billion blooms of the major flowers (roses, carnations and chrysanthemums) and imported only 100 million. By 2003, the trade balance had reversed; the United States imported two billion major blooms and grew only 200 million.

In the 40 years since Cheever had his brainstorm, Colombian flowers have become another global industrial product, like food or electronics. That became apparent to me a few years ago as I stood in front of the flower display at my local supermarket before Mother’s Day (the second-biggest fresh flower-buying occasion in the United States, after Valentine’s Day). My market, in suburban Maryland, had an impressive display of hundreds of preassembled bouquets, as well as fresh, unbunched roses, gerbera daisies and alstroemeria lilies in five-gallon buckets. One $14.99 bouquet caught my eye: about 25 yellow and white gerbera daisies and a sprig of baby’s breath arranged around a single purplish rose. A sticker on the wrapping indicated it had come from Colombia, some 2,400 miles away.

How could something so delicate and perishable (and once so exotic) have come so far and still be such a bargain? It’s no secret that the inexpensive imported products Americans buy often exact a toll on the people who make them and on the environments where they are made. What was I buying into with my Mother’s Day bouquet? My search for answers took me to a barrio about 25 miles northwest of Bogotá.

In cartagenita, the buses rumble over ruts and potholes, moving slowly up and down steep hillsides lined with cinder block houses. “Turismo” is painted in flowing aquamarine script on the buses, but they are no longer used for tours. They carry workers to the flower farms.

Cartagenita is a neighborhood in Facatativá, a city of about 120,000 people and one of Colombia’s largest flower hubs. Only a few of Cartagenita’s streets are paved, and the homes are connected like town houses but without any plan, so one sometimes stands taller or shorter than the next. The barrio ends abruptly after a few blocks at open pasture. Aidé Silva, a flower worker and union leader, moved there 20 years ago. “I’ve got a house here. My husband built it,” she told me. “He worked at Floramérica, and in the afternoons and when Sunday came everybody worked building that little house.” In the years since, she said, thousands more flower workers have bought cheap land and done the same. Cartagenita has the vitality of a working-class neighborhood. There’s a buzz in the evenings as workers come home, some heading for their houses and apartments, some to hang out in the bars and open-air convenience stores.

More than 100,000 people—many displaced by Colombia’s guerrilla wars and rural poverty—labor in greenhouses spread across the savanna. Seen from an airplane, the greenhouses form geometric gray-and-white patterns reminiscent of an Escher drawing. Up close, they turn out to be bare-bones structures of plastic sheeting stapled to wooden frames. But the low-rent look is deceptive; the operations are highly sophisticated.

At a farm called M.G. Consultores, I stood on a platform above a sprawling assembly line where about 320 workers (triple the usual number—this was the run-up to Mother’s Day), most of them women, were arrayed along two long conveyor belts with 14 parallel rows of workstations on either side. The work was divided into many small, discrete tasks—measuring, cutting, bunching—before neat bundles appeared on the belt, which were then dunked in a foamy antifungal solution and boxed. Latin pop music reverberated off the corrugated metal walls. The workers were handling 300,000 rose blooms a day.

Most flowers grown in Colombia are bred in European labs, especially Dutch labs, which ship seedlings and cuttings to growers. A single gerbera plant, for instance, can last several years and produce hundreds of blooms, each one taking 8 to 12 weeks to mature. Growers change colors constantly, rotating new plants in depending on the season or consumer mood. “The tendency now is monochromatic, purple on purple,” said Catalina Mojica, who works for M.G. Consultores on labor and environmental sustainability issues. “We are two years behind fashion—usually European fashion.” Indeed, two years earlier, several top European clothing designers had featured purple in their lines.

Not so long ago, Americans got their flowers from neighborhood florists, who bought blooms grown on U.S. farms. Florists crafted bouquets and arrangements to order. They still do, of course, but this approach seems increasingly quaint. These days, the bouquets that many Americans buy, typically at supermarkets, are grown, assembled and packaged overseas. At the C.I. Agroindustria del Riofrío farm, adjacent to M.G. Consultores, dozens of bouquet assemblers were nearly swallowed up by bulging piles of gerberas, alstroemeria and sprigs of baby’s breath, all to be precisely arranged and bundled in zebra-striped plastic wrap.

Adjacent to the assembly line were spacious storerooms kept at about 34 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s no understatement to say the entire flower industry depends on that number. Selling flowers is, at bottom, an attempt to outwit death, and near-freezing temperatures can delay the inevitable. Cut a flower, and its ability to photosynthesize food from light, carbon dioxide and water soon ceases. Stored food is depleted and the flower wilts. Putting flowers in water slows that process, but only cold temperatures can arrest it for weeks at a time. It took the development of “cold chains”—refrigerated warehouses and trucks every point along the way—to ensure that flowers remain in suspended animation from farm to store.

In the cold rooms, boxes containing flowers are attached to refrigeration units that infuse them with chilled air. Then they’re stacked on pallets, which are wrapped in plastic and loaded onto trucks and driven to Miami-bound planes. (The Queen’s Flowers Corporation, one of the top importers in Miami, receives 3,000 boxes of Colombian blooms, or five tractor-trailers’ worth, on a typical day. And its shipments multiply three times during busy seasons.) It takes about 48 hours for flowers to get from a field in Colombia to a warehouse in the United States, and one or two more days to reach a retailer.

This industrial machine has been assembled at some cost. As the flower business grew, researchers for labor and environmental organizations documented the sorts of problems that typify developing economies. From the beginning, the majority of the tens of thousands of job-seekers who migrated to the savanna were women, and many of them were single mothers. Most workers made the minimum wage, which is now about $250 per month. Many of them reported sexual harassment by male bosses; working long hours without breaks; and repetitive stress injuries with no employer-provided treatment or time off. As recently as 1994, a Colombian sociologist found children as young as 9 working in greenhouses on Saturdays, and children 11 and up working 46-hour weeks in almost all areas of the farms.

A 1981 survey of almost 9,000 flower workers by scientists from Colombia, France and Britain found that the work had exposed people to as many as 127 different chemicals, mostly fungicides and pesticides. (One incentive to use pesticides: the U.S. Department of Agriculture checks imported flowers for insects, but not for chemical residues.) A 1990 study by Colombia’s National Institute of Health (NIH) suggested that pregnant Colombian flower workers exposed to pesticides might have higher rates of miscarriages, premature births and babies with congenital defects.

Colombia’s flower industry has also been profligate in its use of a vital natural resource: fresh water. Producing a single rose bloom requires as much as three gallons of water, according to a study of the Kenyan flower industry by scientists at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. The Bogotá area receives 33 inches of rainfall annually, but after flower farms and other users drilled more than 5,000 wells on the savanna, groundwater levels plunged. One engineering study reported that springs, streams and wetlands were disappearing. As Bogotá continues to expand, the city and the flower industry will be competing for the same dwindling supply.

In the 1990s, the Colombia flower industry’s success in American and European markets drew attention to its practices; a stream of reports about harsh treatment of workers and depletion of natural resources followed. At the same time, consumers began to care more about how their goods were being produced, so Colombia’s flower farms began to respond. “It’s definitely improved over time, particularly as a result of the different organizations giving everybody adverse publicity,” says Catherine Ziegler, author of the book Favored Flowers, about the global industry.

In 1996, Colombia began a series of initiatives, still underway, to eliminate child labor, and international labor groups report that it has been greatly reduced in the cut-flower business. Farms belonging to the flower exporters association, Asocolflores (about 75 percent of the total), have moved to replace the more hazardous classes of agricultural chemicals, says Marcela Varona, a scientist at the environmental health laboratory at Colombia’s NIH. (But researchers note that flower workers who have used hazardous chemicals in the past may continue to be affected for years.)

In addition, the flower industry created Florverde, a voluntary certification program that requires participating farms to meet targets for sustainable water use and follow internationally recognized safety guidelines for chemical applications. At several farms I visited, the plastic sheeting on greenhouse roofs had been extended and reshaped to collect rainwater. Farms participating in Florverde have reduced their groundwater use by more than half by collecting and using rainwater, says Ximena Franco Villegas, the program’s director.

At the same time, slightly fewer than half of Asocolflores farms participate in Florverde, and government oversight remains weak. “The industry is self-regulated, so it’s up to the owner and up to his ethics what he does,” says Greta Friedemann-Sanchez, a University of Minnesota anthropologist and author of the book Assembling Flowers and Cultivating Homes: Labor and Gender in Colombia. “There are facilities that have enough washrooms, bathrooms, lockers, cafeterias, a subsidized lunch workers can purchase, recycle all organic material, trying to do biological control of pests and fungus, and follow labor laws. And then there are firms that don’t do any of those things.”

Similarly, labor disagreements continue. At the Facatativá headquarters of Untraflores, the flower workers union Aidé Silva helped organize in the early 2000s, she told me that after 19 years in the industry, she lost her job in late 2009 in a corporate reorganization—an action she says her employer, Flores Benilda, took to break the union after workers shut down a farm to protest pay and benefit cuts. Moreover, Silva says Benilda drained an $840,000 employee support fund that workers had been contributing to for 20 years, leaving only about $8,000. Benilda did not respond to requests for comment.

The global economic crisis has had an impact, too. “The dollar has fallen, the peso has been revalued, the competition from other countries has grown, as has the focus on supermarkets,” said Untraflores’ political adviser, Alejandro Torres. “These changes in the global flower markets have generated costs, and those get put on the workers.” Thousands of workers have been laid off, and some flower farms have moved away from hiring employees in favor of contracting labor; Torres and Silva say the arrangement allows the farms to stop paying the employer share of government social security and medical benefits.

By contrast, Catalina Mojica says M.G. Consultores is actually working to retain employees. Mojica’s focus on collecting data about working conditions and her willingness to talk with local officials and reporters, for example, represents a change for the industry; farm owners have tended to be secretive about their business operations and rarely meet with outsiders. “They don’t get together and BS with people,” she says. “Some owners don’t know the local government officials, they don’t know the . We’re still very awkward. It’s not something people do.”

“What is expensive for us is people moving from the industry—so we have to keep people happy here,” says María Clara Sanín, a sustainability consultant who has worked with flower farms. At Flores de Bojacá, a farm west of Bogotá that employs about 400 people, there’s an elected employee council that can air complaints to management. The farm has a day care center, a nice cafeteria and machines that strip the thorns off roses—a task usually performed by hand, with special gloves, and a major cause of repetitive stress injuries.

Ultimately, many flower workers have improved their lot. Sanín’s firm, Enlaza, recently surveyed hundreds of women at M.G. Consultores and found that most had previously worked on subsistence farms or as maids, jobs that paid lower wages than the flower industry. Women with their own incomes have more autonomy than those dependent on husbands, says Friedemann-Sanchez, the anthropologist. She answered my original question—What was I buying into if I bought a Colombian bouquet?—with one of her own: “If you don’t buy flowers, what’s going to happen to all these women?”

As I tried to sort out these conflicting snapshots of the industry, I kept coming back to what a flower worker named Argenis Bernal had told me about her life. She began laboring on flower farms when she was 15. Because she was a good worker, she said, she was assigned to the harvest, wielding her clippers along pathways between long lines of flower beds, amassing stacks of roses, carnations, gerberas and other blooms.

“You spend all your time hunched over, from the time they sow the seedling to the time the stems are cut,” she said. “That’s the work, all day long.”

After about a decade, she said, she had to stop harvesting. Now she’s 53, and “I’ve got these problems with my spinal column and with repetitive motion.” She still spends eight hours a day at a farm outside Facatativá owned by Flores Condor, fastening new carnation buds onto the stems of mother plants.

“I’ve stuck it out there because I have only a couple of years until I qualify for a pension,” she says. She and her husband, who have four children, are putting one of their sons through a business management program at a regional community college. Their teenage daughter is hoping to study there, too.

The global marketplace will always demand cheaper flowers, and Colombian farms must compete with growers in other nations, including neighboring Ecuador and rising flower power Kenya. Increasingly, though, there’s another factor flower growers must consider: independent flower certification programs, including Fair Trade flowers, VeriFlora and the Rainforest Alliance, which are working to certify farms in Colombia.

Such programs have been key to Colombia’s business in Europe, where customers pay close attention to the source of their flowers. The U.S. trade in certified flowers is tiny by comparison—my Mother’s Day bouquet bore no certification notice—but growing. “Sustainability is an attribute that consumers are seeking,” says Linda Brown, creator of the certification standards for VeriFlora, which is based in Emeryville, California. “When you are looking 10 to 20 years out, sustainability will become the way that people do business.”

As for David Cheever, he had an eventful ride through the revolution he started with his grad school paper. He says he and his colleagues differed and he was forced out of Floramérica in July 1971, not long after it started. “I went home and cried all afternoon,” he says. But he went on to create his own success, starting carnation-propagation businesses. “I feel myself as more of a missionary than an entrepreneur,” he says.

John McQuaid has written extensively on environmental issues. Ivan Kashinsky is a contributor to the book Infinite Ecuador.

Colombia’s greenhouses employ more than 100,000 people, many of whom were displaced by war or poverty. (Ivan Kashinsky) With steady sunshine and cheap labor, Colombian farms yield $1 billion in exports, dominating the United States market. Shown here are gerbera daisies at Floramérica, near Medellín. (Ivan Kashinsky) As a student in Colorado, David Cheever, at a farm near Medellín, identified Colombia’s flower-growing potential. (Ivan Kashinsky) Cut flowers can go from the field to an assembly line, like this one at the M.G. Consultores farm, to a U.S. warehouse in 48 hours. Leading up to Valentine’s Day and other major flower-buying occasions, the M.G. Consultores firm may process 300,000 roses a day. (Ivan Kashinsky) To ease the plight of flower workers, Aidé Silva helped organize a labor union. (Ivan Kashinsky) Alejandro Torres, a union official and shown here in the center, deplores the rise of contract labor. (Ivan Kashinsky) Labor liaison Catalina Mojica, at right, consults her firm’s workers, many of whom commute by bike. (Ivan Kashinsky) Employing industrial methods to produce beautiful blooms, companies like M.G. Consultores use chemical fertilizers and pesticides that may pose a risk for workers, most of whom are women. (Ivan Kashinsky) Repetitive stress injuries are not uncommon for workers, such as these women at a Rio Frio assembly line. (Ivan Kashinsky) While the flower industry offers a living for many Colombians, like these Bogotá vendors, it faces competition from Kenya and Ecuador. (Ivan Kashinsky) Rose petals are sold for religious rituals. (Ivan Kashinsky) Patricia Gomez works in a greenhouse filled with roses at M.G. Consultores. (Ivan Kashinsky) Cristina Beleran inspects flowers for bugs, disease and general quality in a greenhouse at Rio Frio. (Ivan Kashinsky) A worker prepares to spray yellow gerberas with chemicals at M.G. Consultores. (Ivan Kashinsky) Workers unload sunflowers at dawn to sell at the Palo Quemado market. Flowers that do not make the quality cut to be exported serve their function in the national market. Bouquets and bunches sell for one or two dollars. (Ivan Kashinsky)

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