Libby Francis-Baxter

Libby Francis-Baxter, owner of The Modest Florist, sits near an arrangement of tulips, heather and Leyland cypress in Hampden last week. Francis-Baxter offers local flowers, not roses, even around Valentine's Day. (Photo by Steve Ruark / February 5, 2014)

Hampden florist Libby Francis-Baxter is seeing red over roses.

Her gripe? Most roses are imported from South and Central America, are costly to begin with, and are even more expensive with shipping, said Francis-Baxter, a Hampden resident.

"I don't support outsourcing flower production to South and Central America at the expense of our own local farmers and greenhouse growers," she said.

Francis-Baxter also opposes the markup of roses for Valentine's Day. Roses that averaged 35 cents a stem two weeks ago are skyrocketing as Valentine's Day nears, she said.

"Starting now and through Valentine's Day, those prices will increase 3-5 times. Now we're just getting into gouging. That's offensive."

Francis-Baxter's solution is draconian. She said she carries no roses in her four-month old store, The Modest Florist at West 36th Street and Chestnut Avenue — formerly the longtime Village Flower Mart — and when customers ask for roses, she tries to sell them locally grown flowers, such as tulips, primroses and calla lilies instead.

"My prices are competitive," she said.

And if they insist on roses, she steers them to competitors, as she did for one surprised customer during an interview in the store on the morning of Feb. 6.

Francis-Baxter's mission is "to make local flowers more accessible" on Valentine's Day, she said as she arranged tulips in a reused vase and showed composting bins behind a white curtain near the counter. "It's a made-up holiday anyway, so why don't we make it what we want it to be?"

It's a bold and risky move for an independent florist, especially one with a relatively new store, in an industry dominated by online and national businesses, such as ftd.com and 1800flowers.com.

"There is a language of flowers," said Thomas Shaner, executive director of the Baltimore-based American Institute of Floral Designers. "The red rose means I love you in the language of flowers."

Shaner said roses are priced according to supply and demand, and that roses are harder to grow than many other flowers. Although roses are grown in California, countries like Ecuador and Colombia have the best climates, plus labor is cheaper, he said.

"If they could convince people to buy roses for Christmas, it would up the production," and lower the overall cost of roses, Shaner said.

Shaner argued that roses are so ingrained into the American culture, especially for Valentine's Day, that it's unrealistic for Baxter not to sell them.

"If she's taking a position that 'I think roses are overpriced,' that's her prerogative, but it's not the best decision," Shaner said. "Buying local is a trend in all kinds of things," particularly in the restaurant industry, he said. But he argued that buying local is harder to do in the flower industry year round, and that if retailers buy flowers from a wholesaler, they are liable to come from a greenhouse, defeating the purpose of buying local, as wholesalers "buy from everywhere and bring in volume."

Shaner said he would urge florists to try to convince their customers to buy fewer roses, rather than none at all.

"Why do you need a dozen roses?" he asked. "Get a half dozen."

"It's foolish not to sell roses," said Rene Nepomuceno, assistant manager and South American buyer for the Baltimore branch of Pennock Wholesale Florist, located on West Cold Spring Lane near Interstate 83. Pennock has eight locations along the Eastern seaboard and supplies retail stores as far away as West Virginia and Maryland's Eastern Shore.

But Nepomuceno said he is sympathetic to Francis-Baxter's complaint and has heard similar ones from florists about the high price of roses.

"You can understand their concerns," he said, adding that roses rise in price at least three times around Valentine's Day, compared to their cost at other times of the year — "just because there's a big demand. Everybody has a sweetheart. Everybody has a better half."