Sat, 19 Jun 2021

The vast majority of cut flowers sold in France come from abroad, grown in warmer climes or greenhouses in Holland. A growing number of florists are tapping into an increased interest in local products and finding success selling only flowers grown in France. And the Covid-19 pandemic has also boosted demand for French flowers.

Fioretti looks like many Parisian flower shops: a small storefront with potted plants arranged artfully in baskets and crates on the sidewalk in front, and inside, bunches of colourful flowers overflowing enticingly from vases, ready to be made into bouquets.

In early spring, it is awash with colours: pink peonies, the first of the season, red ranunculus, fuchsia roses and bunches of small wildflowers.

Florist Johanna Cacciamani welcomes a steady stream of customers. She says Covid lockdowns have been good for business: "When there was a complete lockdown people would leave the house to buy a baguette and come to the flower shop and say, 'This is something that gives me such pleasure.'"

While people are not buying as many bouquets to bring to dinner parties, they are buying flowers for themselves. Many buy houseplants to liven up their apartments, that have turned into home offices.

This story is part of the Spotlight on France podcast. Listen to the report here:

Business is booming, though Cacciamani has nothing to compare it to, as she opened Fioretti in November 2019. Her first spring - peak flower season - was last year, during the pandemic.

A former flight attendant for Air France, she quit a few years ago and wanted to try something new. She completed a flower course, and when a storefront became available in her neighbourhood, she jumped at the opportunity to open the shop.

French flowers

From her conversations with other florists and flower growers, she knew she wanted to work with French flowers, which is a challenge as some 80 percent of flowers coming into France come from abroad.

Nearly all come from Holland, which grows flowers in heated greenhouses, and which is also home to the world's largest flower market, which serves as a transit point for flowers arriving from all over the world.

Countries with warm climates and low labour costs, like Kenya and Ecuador, started developing flower industries in the 1990s, and now export low-cost flowers to Europe.

In France, the lowest season for flowers is the winter, which is when Cacciamani opened her shop.

"Luckily during wintertime, we get some flowers from the south of France," she says. "And you have many greens that you can work with. You can make beautiful bouquets mixing lots of greens and flowers."

No Valentine's Day roses

Cacciamani explained to her customers why the shop was so sparse in the winter. She spoke about seasonality, and why there would be no roses for Valentine's Day, for example.

"In February you have beautiful ranunculus, so if you first explain why we don't have roses coming from Ecuador or Kenya, they understand," she says. Only two customers were unhappy and left. "The other people, once they know why I don't sell roses, they say that is OK with us. We'll change our habits."

A month after Valentine's Day, France shut down all businesses during the first Covid lockdown.

Overnight Cacciamani had to close her shop. She started selling bouquets online for delivery. And when shops reopened in May she was surprised to find there was competition for French flowers.

The lockdown had slowed down commercial traffic, and florists were having trouble getting deliveries from Holland.

"The other florists wanted French flowers as well, because the Dutch flowers couldn't come through," says Cacciamani. "It was difficult for me to get some of my flowers, and I had to start ordering in advance."

Finding local growers

Twice a week, Cacciamani leaves home at 4 o'clock in the morning, and drives her truck to the Rungis wholesale market, south of the city.

Like most Parisian florists, she gets her flowers from the market's cut flower pavilion, a large, hangar-like space which dwarfs the bunches of flowers arranged in buckets on the ground and on rolling shelves.

One aisle is reserved for growers from the Paris area, and Cacciamani heads there with her list. She has pre-ordered most of her flowers, though she does not know what colours she will get.

Unlike the Dutch flowers in other parts of the building, the French flowers are less predictable.

"I say, whatever there is, I take. Whatever you have. It's nice to be surprised when you come," she says, taking a look at the bunches of freesia and ranunculus that are put aside for her at one stand.

"They can't assure you, for instance, red or other colours, because the flower has to be ready to be cut. It depends on the weather. We take what's ready."

There are about 20 or 30 growers from the Paris area here at the market and some brokers who sell flowers from elsewhere in France.

Bruno Mangini, a third-generation flower grower based 20 minutes away, says things have changed since he started, and the Rungis market opened in 1969. At the time, Mangini says he was one of among 400 stands selling French flowers. Now there are only about 30.

"Local flowers have always been here," he says, with flowers from the southern Var department from February to May, local flowers from the Paris region in the summer, and then flowers from the south again in October and November.

"What has changed is the proportion of local flowers compared to imports," he says.

Roses from Kenya vs France

In 1990s, Kenya started developing its flower industry and exporting roses. Previously, roses were precious commodities in France.

"Forty years ago, roses were not sold in bunches as they are now," says Olivier Mauregard, another grower from the region. "When rose prices dropped, that brought down the price on all flowers."

This pushed florists to care only about low prices, and it made it difficult for French growers like Mauregard to keep up.

"Today, because roses have become a bit ordinary, people are turning to other things," he says.

"Currently there is a much higher demand for local flowers than previous years," says Mangini. "I think it's general, and it started with food: local fruits and vegetables. And little by little it came to us, with flowers."

Consumer habits are shifting to local products, driven by environmental concerns or personal convictions. The Covid pandemic, which interrupted global trade, has also forced businesses to source more locally.

Luc Flick says he and other local growers are having trouble keeping up with the sudden increase in demand.

"There are people who never bought from local producers, who all of a sudden are complaining to us that we don't have anything for them," he says.

He is frustrated to have to pit long-time customers against newcomers, who he considers are just riding a trend.

The demand has shifted the work at the Rungis market. Previously florists would come and browse, choosing what they want. Now they have to order ahead of time.

"I think that's lame," says Flick, handing Cacciamani two bunches of tulips he had put aside for her. "If she gets here at 4 o'clock in the morning, making the effort to get up early, why shouldn't she have the choice? This is market, after all. And now we are just delivering orders. I don't like it."

This is all Cacciamani knows, as she started in the pandemic. So far she has been managing.

And this spring she is finally able to offer roses. French roses are in season, and they are selling well.

As with all consumer habits, as France emerges from Covid restrictions, the question will be if the demand for French flowers is just a passing trend, or a shift in habits that is here to stay.

This story is part of the Spotlight on France podcast. Listen to a visit to the Rungis flower market here.

Originally published on RFI

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