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Hampden florist promotes Valentine's Day without roses

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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."

Other local florists sympathize too, but say they are afraid to follow Francis-Baxter's local lead.

"If I could, I would," said Vander Pearson, whose shop, Pearson's, has been a fixture at the intersection of North Avenue and Charles Street for about three decades. But he said small independent florists are "disappearing" in the face of online competition and "the little stores depend on Valentine's Day. Most flower shops aren't going to say the heck with roses because that's what they need to pay their bills. Locally grown flowers work for Mother's Day, but for Valentine's Day, I don't think that's going to work. There's so much competition and it's hard to pull people away from something they're so used to."

At the store Crimson & Clover Floral Design in Roland Park, several employees said they didn't want to alienate their customers. A floral designer who asked to be identified only by her first name, Melissa, said she tries to use locally sourced flowers when possible, but that, "You can't do that for roses. If the customers want them, we get them in. I don't ever want to make a customer feel bad."

Francis-Baxter, 49, said she's not an island unto herself.

"I don't want to get up on my soapbox," she said, and cited author Debra Prinzing's book, Slow Flowers, and national website, slowflowers.com, which helps people to find florists in their states that take "no-imports" pledges to use American-grown flowers, foliage, branches, berries and other botanicals exclusively, according to the site.

But locally, Francis-Baxter is pretty much alone — "like a pioneer out there," Pearson said.

"I'm under no delusions," said Francis-Baxter, who learned her craft at a cafe and flower shop in Vermont in the late 1980s and is a veteran of the flower and food and beverage industries.

At one time she had a country inn in Vermont, worked as a catering operations manager at the Tantallon Country Club in Prince George's County, and was director of retail food services at the Maryland Institute College of Art, before opening The Modest Florist.

Francis-Baxter appears to be making some headway in selling what she calls "sustainably sourced" flowers for Valentine's Day. She said she has received online orders on her website, themodestflorist.com.

And during the interview, she had mixed success when two customers came in at about the same time. The first was Warren Schwartz, of Wyman Park, a retired coach and physical education teacher at area high schools, who was looking for a Valentine's Day flower arrangement for his wife.

"I never buy roses anymore," Schwartz said. "Too expensive."

"Good man," Francis-Baxter said.

Waiting patiently behind Schwartz was Ray Sprenkle, 66, of Roland Park, a teacher at the Peabody Conservatory.

"I'd like a dozen red roses," Sprenkle said.

"Unfortunately, I don't have roses," Francis-Baxter said. She tried to interest Sprenkle in something else, but he wouldn't hear of it, and she referred him to several other stores, including Whole Foods, which pleasantly surprised him.

Sprenkle left with no hard feelings.

"I'm an old guy," he said. "I'm stuck in old ways."

Francis-Baxter thought the morning was going well.

"I'm not going to change the world," she said. "What I can do is offer you suggestions and alternatives."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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