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
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
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
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
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
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