Karen Plarisan dreamed of working with flowers. After raising three children, she finally opened her own floral studio about five years ago.
“I’ve wanted a florist shop since I was in high school,” she recalled with a smile. “When I hit the big five-O, it was now or never.”
But after realizing her dream job, she soon was sick of exposure to the white powdery pesticide residue that accompanied many flowers from their sources in South America. She found the solution in her own Roseville backyard.
With just over an acre of space, Plarisan and her family dug up the Bermuda grass where the kids had played countless days. Daughter Karly Plarisan, a graphic artist and avid gardener, became her mother’s partner. Together, they planted dahlias, roses, zinnias and scores of other colorful flowers.
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And together, they turn those blooms into beautiful bouquets and arrangements for their Verbena Flowers & Trimmings, a floral studio that grows its own materials.
“We’re so close to the city, but still country,” said Karen, who has lived at her Roseville home for 20 years. “You can grow a lot of flowers on an acre.”
The mother-daughter duo are part of a new generation of flower farmers dedicated to growing sustainable blooms for local buyers.
“Arrangements are fun; farming is tough work,” Karen said with a laugh. “This is our second year of farming with a purpose, and we’ve learned a lot.”
Their timing also was right. Following the “slow food” trend, locally grown, sustainable “slow flowers” have become the next step in the farm-to-table movement as consumers become more in tune with the source of agricultural products.
“These are the kinds of flowers that brides all want – old-fashioned roses and dahlias,” added Karen. “The roses cost $42 for 10 stems wholesale with shipping on top. But we can grow our own.”
Added Karly, “They smell yummy, too.”
Unlike fruits or vegetables, flowers usually don’t come with stickers detailing their place of origin. Most supermarket bouquets traveled thousands of miles (and several days) before they landed in a vase. Often, these imported flowers are treated with chemical preservatives to prolong their life and with pesticides to kill hitchhiking bugs.
“The No. 1 question I hear from audiences is this: How do I know the source of my flowers?” said author and “slow flower” advocate and author Debra Prinzing, who has taken her American-grown campaign nationwide. “People ask: ‘Who grew these flowers and how far did they have to travel to get to me? How can I spend my floral budget wisely?’ ”
Sourcing help is on its way. On July 1, a project called “Certified American Grown Flowers” launched a labeling program to assure consumers that the posies they pick up at a market or order from a florist are American grown.
At present domestic flowers represent a few blooms in a large bouquet. Total United States floriculture sales (including potted plants) is close to $28 billion. But imports account for two out of every three cut flowers sold in the U.S. by dollar volume, according to the USDA. About 78 percent of those flowers were grown in Colombia; Ecuador was No. 2 at 15 percent.
In 2013, domestically produced cut flowers accounted for $419 million in wholesale sales, according to statistics released last week. Of that, $319 million – about 78 percent – came from California growers, who produce three-quarters of the domestic cut-flower crop.
Just as consumers’ appetite for sustainably produced food continues to grow, interest in sustainable flowers is skyrocketing, said Prinzing. Prinzing recently launched SlowFlowers.com to link consumers with sources for nearby organically produced flowers. She quickly signed up more than 335 farmers, floral arrangers and retailers.
“Over the past six years, I have focused my reporting and storytelling on the uniqueness, high quality and seasonal beauty of American-grown flowers,” she said. “Behind each stem is a talented American flower farmer whose story is equally compelling. Once harvested, those floral crops are turned into creative designs in the hands of florists like Karen and Karly Plarisan who value homegrown blooms. ... Consumers have been swept up in this captivating floral landscape.”
That’s created a demand for local “slow flowers.” After decades of decline in the number of American flower farms, membership in the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers is at an all-time high – more than 700 – as farmers pivot from traditional food crops to flowers, Prinzing noted.
“The growth is in small, boutique family farms – in urban and rural areas – where entrepreneurial cut-flower growers are producing couture stems for the floral industry,” she said.
That custom romantic look is what many customers want, said Karen Plarisan. Her boutique bouquets look as if they’ve been plucked from an English-style cutting garden.
“That’s the style that’s coming back,” added Karly, 26. “Organic, natural, fresh-picked, with lots of greenery; that’s what we love, too.”
Flower farming isn’t a primrose path; there have been many bumps in their journey.
“Our roses had every disease known to roses,” Karen noted.
Then, there were the “Cafe au Lait” dahlias that weren’t; instead of pale blush pink (a favorite for bridal bouquets), the blooms turned out vivid purple. “(The nursery supplier) sent us the wrong tubers,” Karen said. “That was a lesson.”
But they’ve also found creative freedom. Instead of confined to a palette of predictable straight-stemmed perfect posies, they can experiment with unexpected combinations. Buttonlike scabiosa mixes with variegated euphorbia and long red strands of amaranth. Cosmos and sage frame big dinner-plate dahlias. For greenery, they use more materials pulled from their backyard garden such as dill or basil. Stems of dusty miller give a silver luster. Raspberry stems make lime-green accents. Jasmine vines create visual twists. Green baby grapes and leaves trail around vases. Eucalyptus and bay laurel leaves add scent as well as color.
“Of course, we use lemon verbena,” Karen said, noting the inspiration for the name of their Verbena farm. “I love the scent. We try to add a little bit of scent to every bouquet,”
Recently, they launched a subscription program where customers can sign up for a bouquet (or two) a month. It’s sort of like a CSA (community supported agriculture) box of flowers. Said Karly, “Our bouquets are always a surprise; we pick what’s freshest.”
Their materials change with the season. In early spring, they had abundant daffodils and tulips. In late spring came the peonies. Early summer had hydrangeas. Fall will be filled with unusual mums.
“There’s still a section of Bermuda grass out front; that’s coming out next,” Karen said. “We’ll plant more flowers.”
Looking over long rainbow-hued rows of zinnias, mother and daughter take pride in how much they’ve accomplished.
Said Karen, “This has been absolutely the best thing for us. It’s been a dream come true.”