Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

“Flower Confidential,” by Amy Stewart. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 2007. 306 pp. $23.95.
By Mary Rice Patterson
For the Salisbury Post
“Flower Confidential” is a tell-all book about flowers. Amy Stewart travels the globe to take us inside this dazzling world.
She tracks down scientists intent on developing the first genetically modified blue rose. She tells of Leslie Woodriff, an eccentric horticultural legend who created the world’s most popular lily (the Star Gazer) and who died in 1997. He had a photographic memory and would dream of a lily before he perfected it. He was part of the last generation of true old-fashioned flower breeders.
Over the last few centuries, men have made it possible to breed flowers for commercial use. She tells of breeding gerberas of every imaginable color.
In 1700-1800, botanists came to understand the role of insects in the pollination of flowers, but Charles Darwin’s work with orchids proved that plants may adapt themselves to their pollinators.
For years, growers tried to claim they had a blue rose, but it was a hoax. It’s impossible to grow one. They only exist in stories.
“Scents tell insects where they can find nectar, where they can lay their eggs, where there might be pollen to gather. The symbols blend into a symphony whose notes are difficult to discern. When we press our face into roses or lilies we have no idea what kind of communication network we have blundered into. Breeding the perfect flower is a balancing act.”
She continues with the story of Ecuadorean farmers growing exquisite, organic roses. When she asked about a thornless rose, she got this reply:
“You have machines moving plants around in the house. If one rose has too many thorns it might tear the leaves of the rose next to it. That lets in disease which will spread and damage the crop. It’s the growers who would like thornless roses. Customers still like the thorns. It’s what makes a rose, a rose. Without the thorns is it still a rose?”
She sees firsthand how flowers are grown and harvested on farms in Latin America, California and Holland and gives a very thorough study of what has been gained or lost in tinkering with Mother Nature ó what makes flowers smell and how the life can be prolonged.
” ‘Red Intuition’ is a good example of the kind of premium rose that is almost impossible to find in the U.S. Each flower has an enormous head that grows on perfectly straight five foot stems. At the farm they were exhibited in sturdy glass floor vases.”
These were headed for Russian markets. About 30 percent of the roses go there.
This book is written in an easy, flowing style and filled with unbelievable facts. I’m sure anyone would appreciate getting a bouquet of flowers and wonder where on the planet it was raised.
The end of the book contains a section on the care and feeding of cut flowers, one with contact information on markets and gardens, statistics, notes and bibliography.
Mary Rice Patterson reads and writes in China Grove.