Where have all the flowers gone?

By George Ball

Where have all the flowers gone? American cities, proud hubs of the arts, increasingly lack the very soul of culture: the flower. The original earthly joy, flowers bestow what our urban spaces are most in need of: beauty, romance, delirious color, fragrance, and a panoply of extraordinary forms.

Our urban centers, meanwhile, are reveling in a vegetable renaissance. Vegetable gardens large and small are sprouting in our cities: in backyards, window boxes, and repurposed warehouses, and on rooftops and balconies.

Farmer's markets offer up splendorous harvests of fresh produce: cooed over by urban vegetable aficionados, who, a while back, likely didn't know the difference between radishes and radicchio. Heirloom vegetables, standard pre-World War II market varieties, must fairly blush at the lavish attention - and prices - accorded them.

The Dawning of the Age of the Vegetable, unfortunately, converges with the Decline and Fall of the Flower. Not so long ago, our cities were abloom with florists, a species fast going the way of record stores. Restaurant tables flared with flora. Women wore corsages. Men's suit lapels boasted boutonnieres. Guests arrived bearing bouquets. Homes were festooned with flowering potted plants.

Compared with European metropolises, America's cities are strikingly unfloriferous - and poorer for it. Vegetable gardens now abound; flower gardens are few. Vegetables are delectable and nutritious; we admire them, we respect them, but we do not love them. Flowers engage our senses and spirits in ways even the ripest, juiciest heirloom tomato cannot.

The author Iris Murdoch observed, "People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us." If only flowers were about us.

The flower is the crown jewel of botanical creation. Without flowers, there would be no seeds, no fruits or vegetables, no life. Humankind has coevolved with flora: We domesticated flowers; flowers - the first plants cultivated without a utilitarian purpose - have domesticated us.

The ultimate symbols, flowers are prettily strewn throughout poetry, song, legends, and stories. They bloom in paintings, architecture, ceramics, textiles, photographs: every form of visual pleasure. Enshrined in the trajectory of our lives, flowers signify birth, youth, romance, and marriage; at death, they promise new life. In our anhedonic, pixilated digital age, we need flowers more than ever.

Unfortunately, commercially available flowers are mostly poor in quality, limited in selection, and grown abroad under shockingly unsustainable conditions. Most imported blooms fly in from South America on pollution-spewing jets. Grown in greenhouses staffed by exploited workers, flowers are sprayed with pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides, and picked too young.

On arrival, newly imported flowers are gassed with ethylene to hasten ripening - sacrificing buds, leaves, and richness of color. That's why your supermarket-bought blooms look dead on arrival.

The burgeoning crop of urban gardeners will provide an extraordinary service by cultivating flowers, serving "locaflors" as well as locavores. Flowers, enduring symbols of renewal and rebirth, await their urban renaissance.

As seen in The Philadelphia Inquirer

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