Say it with ecoflowers

This St Valentine’s Day Irish growers want people to choose freshly picked local flowers rather than roses flown in from abroad

 

Kealin Beattie’s husband, Ciarán, used to send her 20 red roses every St Valentine’s Day. “I thought it was terribly romantic, but then I saw Flowers for the Gringo, a television documentary about the Colombian flower industry. It is about how flowers are grown to beat the drug cartels, but it shows the appalling working conditions of the women growers. After that I asked him not to buy me roses, and we go out to dinner instead,” Beattie, a flower grower based in Co Leitrim, says.

Mags Riordan, who spent 20 years or so as a florist, with a shop in Skibbereen, Co Cork, was shocked when she researched what might have caused her dermatitis. “Some of the flowers imported here come from South America, and the chemicals they use there have been banned for years in Europe,” she says.

Riordan, who now grows flowers for weddings and for restaurants, at Bumblebee Flower Farm, near Drimoleague, was also horrified by the human suffering in the industry. “It’s a bit like cheap food. You can’t buy flowers cheaply unless there is serious exploitation of workers, and in this case it’s women and child workers.”

Hanna Heubach has been growing and selling Irish flowers from her smallholding in west Co Cork for more than 20 years. “I was one of the first to start selling wild flowers. I have about 1½ acres under cultivation without chemicals, and I use every flower I grow.”

Heubach says that her customers at farmers’ markets in Cork city choose her bouquets for their uniqueness. “My flowers have a lot of personality. I create special bouquets, and some people even like flowers with bendy stems.”

Even the vagaries of the Irish climate help. “We struggle with poor weather,” she says, “but our advantage is that the short-lived flowers, like sweet pea and dahlias, grow well in Ireland and they ship really poorly.” That should make a home-grown bouquet extra special on February 14th: they’re fresh, local flowers that will stand out from a sea of imported red roses.

Passionate

Andy Whelton, a Teagasc horticulture adviser, says that interest in Irish-grown flowers is increasing.

“The market for outdoor cut foliage has expanded in the past 10-15 years and is a viable alternative to tillage crops for some farmers. Growing flowers is a very small niche market, but flower packers for supermarkets in Ireland are keen to sell more flowers grown in Ireland.”

Some Irish farmers grow daffodils or sunflowers on a large scale; Irish-grown roses, dahlias, tulips, sweet william, cosmos, honeysuckle and sweet pea tend to come from small-scale producers.

The fragrance is one of the attractions of buying freshly cut flowers picked at their prime. Beattie says, “The scent of Irish flowers is very evocative. Women who smell the flowers at our stall at the market in Carrick-on-Shannon and Sligo sometimes have tears in their eyes because it reminds them of their grandparents.”

But before you consider selling up and moving to the countryside to grow flowers, be warned that it’s tough work with modest financial returns.

Kealin and Ciarán Beattie moved from Dún Laoghaire, in south Co Dublin, to live full time in their holiday home in Co Leitrim when their work in the city dried up, during the recession. Ciarán’s horticulture training provided an incentive to set up Leitrim Flowers. As well as growing blooms to sell in farmers’ markets, the Beatties run courses for others who would like to set up cut-flower businesses.

“It’s physically hard work, especially for Ciarán, who does all the digging. You have to have loads of energy and a happy disposition. But we’re very motivated by living in such a beautiful place, with trees, a lake and lots of mammals, birds and butterflies,” Kealin says.

Hanna Heubach, who also runs workshops for hobby growers and for aspiring professionals, says that Irish flower growers do it for love rather than money. “It’s about doing something that is satisfying for yourself. We aren’t just bunching up what is cheapest and taking the money.”

Heubach forages in hedgerows for foliage for her bouquets. “I use wild heather to supplement my flowers. I’ve been foraging since before it became fashionable. You have to be aware of what is protected. I also ask people who have nice gardens if I can pick some foliage, and I give them flowers in return.”

Now, for the first time, a group of Irish growers will get together to raise awareness of their work and share their experiences of growing flowers around Ireland. Ruth Fortune, who used to be an architect, is organising the first meeting of Irish flower growers, at Doneraile Court Tea Rooms, in Co Cork, on Saturday, February 25th. “We want to raise awareness so people realise that most of the flowers they buy are imported and that there is an alternative,” she says. It’s a message worth remembering this St Valentine’s Day.

@sthompsonIT

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