Asking For A Friend: Are my store-bought flowers simply a bouquet of dangerous pesticides?

Go ahead and get your flowers on, say the experts — biological control strategies control pests without poison.

Karen Hawthorne 5 minute read February 11, 2022
Bouquet of flowers thrown in a yellow trash can

Buy locally-grown ornamentals to support Canadian producers and reduce the carbon footprint of shipping. GETTY

Dear Asking For a Friend, 

I love, love, love to have fresh flowers in my house, especially in the depths of winter. But I recently heard that store-bought flowers may not be good for me — apparently they are laden with pesticides. Is this true?

Signed, Fresh Flower Fan 


Dear Fresh Flower Fan, 

Fresh-cut flowers have a way of lifting spirits and brightening someone’s day, which makes them a great gift for friends and loved ones to make them smile (and forgive any recent faux pas). The vibrant colours and scents also deliver a great sensory experience and they’ve been linked to an increase in positive energy and creativity.

But are they safe? You handle them to arrange a bouquet in a vase and freshen them with water and food to make them last. And you’re likely putting your nose into the blooms to inhale their fragrances. An often-cited consumer safety study in Belgium in 2016 revealed that the most commonly sold cut flowers in the country — roses, gerberas, and chrysanthemums — were heavily contaminated by pesticide residues. 

While the Belgian florists themselves were not directly involved with pesticide handling and spraying, analytical results showed that they had been exposed to high levels of pesticide residues, and many of those surveyed said they had developed skin allergies.

However, floriculture expert Cary Gates says those fresh-cut bouquets in florist shops and other retailers are safe. Often, these ornamental beauties are fragile and grown with minimal intervention. 

“You don’t want to spray anything on a flower because you could damage the flower,” he says. “Typically, you wouldn’t even spray water on them because they’re fragile, they’re delicate, and you wouldn’t want to risk harming them in any way.”

Gates is pest management director of Flowers Canada Growers, the national trade association for the floral industry. Its members are greenhouse growers, distributors, and importers and exporters of ornamentals, including the cut flowers and greens you’ll find in popular bouquets.

He studied plant science at the University of Guelph and worked in a plant bio-physiology lab, looking at plant breeding and pest and disease management before joining the association in 2006.

Part of his job is talking to growers and visiting farms to learn about their operations and promote best practices like biological control strategy.

This practice uses organisms like predatory mites or parasitic wasps that are released in a greenhouse to eliminate pests without the need of other interventions like pesticides. There are also what are casually termed as bio-pesticides, such as beneficial bacteria or fungi that are applied to target a problematic insect or disease on a crop.

Greenhouse ornamentals specifically lend themselves to using these biological controls because of the contained environment where it’s easier to manipulate the growing climate, water and light to create an ideal ecosystem for quality and yield.

“It’s rare for me to find a grower who is not using a form of biological pest control,” says Gates. “The shift that I’ve seen has been enormously towards biological pest control and that holistic kind of approach where pesticides are sort of a last resort or a mandated requirement for a quarantine issue or something like that.”

Agricultural products, including flowers, that are imported into Canada are screened for safety and quality by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and its regulatory partners. And European production of all crops is highly regulated in terms of pesticides. 

“We’ve never heard of any issues with imported floral products coming in laden with pesticides,” Gates says, adding that conferences on biological pest control are well-attended by industry representatives from Europe where the Netherlands leads in ornamental flower production and research.

He’s also visited farms in Holland and Colombia in South America, both major producers of roses for the North American market. Gates explains that plant diseases thrive in environments where crops are not naturally supposed to grow. They’re not as much of a concern for producers in Europe and equatorial countries.

“The big flower-producing regions in the world typically are environments that are well suited for the production of roses,” he says. “Colombia is very well suited with high elevation, fairly steady temperature and not too much humidity.”

The health of workers and consumers has also influenced the trend for more natural growing practices. That goes hand-in-hand with research and increased public awareness about the impact of pesticides on human health and the environment. 

“The industry is constantly evolving in a good way,” he says.

A good tip if you’re shopping for a bouquet?

Buy locally-grown ornamentals to support Canadian producers and reduce the carbon footprint of shipping. In fact, there are more than 50 different kinds of cut flowers produced in Canada, with the greenhouse floriculture industry generating $1.566 billion in sales in 2019. It’s a major contributor to Canadian agriculture. 

“Gerberas, snapdragons, orchids are all very common,” Gates says, along with irises and lilies. “Tulips are number one, so think tulips in springtime.”

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