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Eco-Friendly Flowers for Valentine's Day

Those beautiful roses you're giving for Valentine's Day have an ugly side: Most are grown with highly toxic pesticides.

"Flowers are the most toxic agricultural crop in the world because they have to look perfect," says Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association.

To keep the flowers blemish-free, growers -- mostly located in Colombia and Ecuador -- use large amounts of chemicals. Because flowers aren't a food crop, government restrictions are few, Cummins said.

But following in the sustainable footprint of hybrid cars, organic vegetables and reusable grocery bags, "green" flowers are starting to blossom.

These flowers are grown under rigorous guidelines for pesticide use, reducing health risks to workers and the environmental damage from chemical-laden runoff. Growers must also show that working conditions are safe and pay is equitable.

Anita Bourne bought an armful of eco-friendly roses at Whole Foods in Edgewater on Tuesday morning.

"I've heard for years about the horror stories with pesticides and imported flowers," she said. "The people who were picking them were getting desperately sick. It's not that you eat the flowers or anything, but you do worry about the workers who pick them."

Brenda Carmichael, an Englewood resident who was shopping at the store, agreed. "I would hope everyone would look to something like this, seeing that our planet is in such dire need of help," she said. "I don't even use pesticides in my own garden."

The best bet for finding these flowers in North Jersey are at Whole Foods Markets. "Green" bouquets are also available on a hit-or-miss basis in flower shops.

FTD.com began marketing a line of eco-friendly flowers for next-day delivery in October, and 1-800-Flowers followed suit last month. Organic Bouquet, which sells only eco-friendly flowers, expects to deliver 400,000 roses for Valentine's Day. This includes thousands of customers in North Jersey and New York, said Gerald Prolman, president of the California-based company.

By year's end, Prolman expects to sell more than 20 million "eco-certified" roses - 10 times as many as last year -- thanks to a new partnership with Marriott Hotels to use the flowers in its hotels.

"People want to know how farm workers are treated and they want assurances that the earth is not being contaminated," he said.

The industry is still in its early stages -- the "green" flower business represents only 1 or 2 percent of the estimated $21 billion annual U.S. flower industry -- but many see a rosy future.

"If you look at organic vegetables 20 years ago, they were hard to find, and today they are a billion-dollar business," said Marc Kessler of California Organic Flowers. "That's where organic flowers are right now -- they're still in that fledgling stage."

But many local florists say organic flowers are still too expensive to stock.

"Face it -- organic flowers do cost a lot more unless you are able to buy huge quantities," said Chris Raimondi, president of the Raimondi Horticultural Group in Ho-Ho-Kus.

"The floral industry is moving toward organic flowers, but it will take time because so many of the growers don't see the financial reward yet," he said.

Michael Chugranis, owner of Broderick's Flowers in Bergenfield and Waldwick, said he could see selling eco-friendly flowers in the future, but, so far, interest in them has been low.

"None of my suppliers has offered me any organic flowers, and I haven't had any calls for organic flowers, but it's something that I would be interested in doing," he said. "We're all trying to do the right thing for the environment."

Some local florists hadn't heard of eco-friendly flowers at all.

"The only time I've had anybody ask for flowers that didn't have pesticides would be somebody wanting to decorate a cake with edible flowers," said Jaynee Toth, floral designer with Bosland's Flower Shop in Wayne.

Flowers grown with pesticides are safe by the time they reach market: "Cut flowers aren't poisonous to the touch," Raimondi said. "The pesticides have a short life, and by the time the flowers reach the consumer, the dangers are long gone."

The problem is the runoff from the pesticides can harm areas where they are raised - and the large quantities of pesticides that are needed to grow perfect bouquets can endanger workers.

Seventy percent of the cut flowers sold in the United States come from overseas. A study by the International Labor Rights Fund last year found that two-thirds of the flower-trade employees in Colombia and Ecuador had work-related health problems, many as a result of pesticide exposure. They often worked up to 80 hours a week, for $6 a day.

Consumers who want to buy eco-friendly flowers should look for certain labels. The toughest label to get is USDA.-certified organic, which requires that flowers be grown under rigorous standards that prohibit the use of toxic pesticides and other chemicals.

There are also VeriFlora, an independent certification program for American florists, "fair trade certified" flowers, "Biodynamic" certified and Colombia's Florverde. Each has a different set of standards regarding sustainability, working conditions and other aspects of production.

Those goals sounded good to George Meagher of Ringwood, who was at the Edgewater Whole Foods to buy flowers for his sister's birthday Tuesday morning.

"I like the idea of growing anything with as few pesticides as possible," he said.

E-mail: wright@northjersey.com. Jim Wright's nature blog is northjersey.com/owl

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