Field to Vase
Jan./Feb. 2016 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Kate Campbell
Photos by Richard Green and courtesy of California Cut Flower Commission
Dinner tours celebrate local flowers—and those who grow them
Guests enjoy an elegant dinner among roses in California Pajarosa Floral's Watsonville greenhouse, graced with arrangements by a top local floral designer.
Receiving a bouquet of flowers is fun. Sharing a sumptuous meal with farmers who grow those blooms is magical. That's what guests who've attended Field to Vase Dinner Tours say about the public events held at greenhouses and flower farms throughout California and the U.S.
The "pop-up" parties are intimate events that include behind-the-scenes farm tours, floral design demonstrations, fine wines and a gourmet meal prepared by chefs acclaimed in the local area—all in the midst of a lavish array of flowers.
"You get to eat delish local grub in a greenhouse or in a flower field full of beautiful American-grown flowers, and when you leave, your new BFFs are amazing localvores, just like you. How rad is that?" said San Francisco floral designer Christina Stembel.
She attended last year's dinner at California Pajarosa Floral in Watsonville and said dining in a greenhouse banked with 160 varieties of fragrant, blooming roses was "awesome."
Stembel's own floral business, Farmgirl Flowers, relies on blooms and greenery grown within 200 miles of San Francisco. She's on a first-name basis with many of the state's 200 family flower growers. But like most people, she doesn't usually get to sit down and enjoy a meal with them while taking in their farm's floral splendors.
Organizers say this is what makes Field to Vase dinners such a hit with the public and with floral professionals. The events, launched a few years ago to increase awareness of American- and California-grown flowers, have been sellouts across the country.
Paul Furman, owner of California Pajarosa Floral, checks bunches ready for delivery.
Telling a story
Each artisan-style dinner is set in a unique location—think a greenhouse lined with orchids, fields of colorful ranunculus waving in coastal breezes or a packinghouse filled to the rafters with fragrant roses.
"We're proud to open our greenhouses and we enjoy sharing what we do," said Paul Furman of California Pajarosa Floral. His family has been growing flowers in Watsonville since 1979 and was among the first California growers to use hydroponic methods to produce roses, which Furman said allows for higher-quality blooms. Hydroponics provides nutrition to the plants through water rather than soil, and at Pajarosa Floral, the nutrient-enriched water is continuously filtered and reused, almost eliminating waste.
"We're promoting locally grown flowers and sending our story along to consumers," Furman said. "The dinner is a great way to raise awareness of our community, our workers, our floral products and California agriculture."
Near-perfect growing conditions for commercial flower production has advantages, Furman said. About 75 percent of all U.S.-grown blooms come from California, and those floral products are usually available to florists and consumers within 48 hours of the time they're cut, he added.
"We set our dinner amongst blooming roses—all different colors, shapes and sizes," Furman said. "The visual impact and fragrance of the roses—the delicious food and wine—was overwhelming, even for me, and I work with roses."
When the party was in full swing, he said he looked up and down the 120-foot-long dinner table, "and what I found was delight, laughter and beauty everywhere I turned. It was over the top."
When the twinkling lights dimmed and guests prepared to depart, each took a bit of the magic home—a professionally arranged bouquet celebrating California-grown flowers. The attendees also learned from tags tied to the vases something about the language of flowers: the hidden meanings in flowers as emotional symbols (see story below).
Furman said as much as anything, he wants guests to understand the skills and dedication that go into producing perfect blooms, day after day. He thinks that's where the magic of flowers begins.
Santa Cruz floral designer Teresa Sabankaya, who arranged the flowers for the Watsonville Field to Vase Dinner Tour, demonstrates bouquet-making techniques for early arriving guests.
'Glorious farmland' for flowers
Santa Cruz floral designer Teresa Sabankaya, owner of Bonny Doon Garden Co., was selected as floral designer for the Watsonville Field to Vase dinner. She specializes in locally grown, seasonal flowers and is a longtime Pajarosa Floral customer.
After learning of her selection, Sabankaya said, "I took a walk through the greenhouses and began to imagine the event. The greenhouse roofs are tall and I wanted to lower the ceilings to create a more intimate atmosphere." With the help of her contractor husband, Nizeh, she created an overhead structure for hanging large arrangements of cascading roses, ferns and ivy.
A Texas native, Sabankaya said she was "blown away" when she first moved to California by the abundance and diversity of floral material grown here, and couldn't help wondering why floral products were being imported from other countries.
"Especially with all this glorious farmland and the ability to produce fantastic cut flowers and greenery," she said, "I couldn't figure it out."
The reasons are complex, related to international trade agreements and production costs, including labor and transportation, according to the California Cut Flower Commission. As much as 80 percent of the fresh flowers sold in the U.S. come from South America.
"It's important for us to meet with consumers to explain what we do and why domestic flower production is important," Furman said. "Only 1 percent of roses sold in the U.S. come from American rose farms. We're among the last remaining rose farms in the U.S."
Dinner begins with salads made from locally grown ingredients.
A cultural shift
Another telling statistic, said Kasey Cronquist, California Cut Flower Commission CEO, is that 85 percent of U.S. consumers don't know where the flowers they buy are grown. But surveys show 55 percent would purchase U.S.- and California-grown flowers—if they had a way to find them.
"More people are turning to American-grown flowers," said floral designer and author Debra Prinzing. "It's a movement; it isn't a trend. It's a cultural shift in response to universal concerns about jobs, the economy, the environment—and it reflects a desire to connect with our natural surroundings and live in each season."
She said the movement includes a passionate group of flower farmers from across California and the country who've created the Certified American Grown brand. They're working to raise consumer awareness of the contributions made by local flower farms, retailers and florists.
Their aim, she said, is to provide an unequaled selection of top-quality floral products and help direct a larger share of the estimated $12 billion a year spent on buying flowers and greens back to U.S. farms.
In 2014, American Grown Flowers partnered with Made In USA Certified Inc., an independent third-party agency that verifies the source of products made and grown in the U.S. Bouquets carrying the distinctive blue-and-gold CA Grown sticker are guaranteed to contain only flowers and greens from California farms.
"The best thing about our Field to Vase events is the smile on everyone's faces as they walk out," said Kathleen Williford, California Cut Flower Commission designer and event planner. "I can't tell you how many times I hear the word 'magical' during our tour events. But what's really nice is how interested guests become about the benefits and the pleasures of locally grown flowers—which is our point, after all."
What bouquets have to say about love
Before there were emojis, there were flowers. Since ancient times, flowers and greens have provided an emotional vocabulary that can speak when people are at a loss for words.
This language, called floriography, became highly popular in the Victorian era for sending coded messages to love interests via flowers. Victorians armed with floral dictionaries often exchanged small "talking bouquets" called nosegays or tussie-mussies, which also could be worn or carried as a fashion accessory—a corsage or wristlet.
It's common knowledge that red roses indicate true love, but what do other flowers, herbs and greens have to say? Here are some examples from flower language dictionaries:
- Azalea: Take care of yourself for me.
- Striped carnation: Sorry I can't be with you.
- White daisy: Innocence; I'll never tell.
- Dead leaves: Sadness.
- Garlic: Courage, strength.
- Yellow marigold: Cruelty.
- Pine: Hope, pity.
- Sweet pea: Goodbye.
- Blue violets: Faithfulness; I'll always be true.
- Magenta zinnia: Lasting affection.