WASHINGTON — There was something different about the iris and quince blossoms in the flower arrangements at the state dinner for France at the White House this year: They were grown in the United States, not overseas.
The change is a result of pressure on the White House from the American cut-flower lobby, which argues that if first lady Michelle Obama is going to showcase locally grown food and American wine, she can do the same for the hundreds of flowers, traditionally changed weekly, in the White House state rooms, West Wing and private quarters and, when it is in use, at Camp David, Md.
Although at least one wholesaler in the Washington, D.C., area says the White House tries to use American flowers when possible, for several decades the tiny White House flower shop has been heavily dependent on imported blooms.
“I was so pleased to see that the dinner included blue and purple irises grown in my own state,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, wrote in a thank-you note to Michelle Obama after the French dinner.
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How American flowers had a star turn in the arrangements — including weeping willow branches from New Jersey, and Scotch broom from Virginia that hung from enormous “floral chandeliers” in the dinner tent — is a tale of politics, trade deals and the fruits of chatting
with President Obama on Air Force One. (There are cut flowers there, too.)
“It took work to make this happen,” said Kathleen Merrigan, a former deputy secretary of agriculture who took on cut flowers as a cause.
The White House began using fresh flowers instead of wax ones in the late 1850s, when James Buchanan’s hostess and niece, Harriet Lane, brought the fashion across the Atlantic after a trip to England. The Lincoln White House used camellias grown in the White House orangery.
Rosalynn Carter used low-cost forsythia at the dinner celebrating the 1978 Camp David accords, and Nancy Reagan, who was first lady when the U.S. started using airfreight to import flowers from all over the world, embraced more of everything: peonies, lilies, amaryllis, freesia, hydrangeas.
“It was really Mrs. Reagan who set the tone and, I think, changed White House flowers forever,” Nancy Clarke, who was the White House chief florist for 25 years, wrote in “My First Ladies,” her 2011 memoir. “Every first lady since then has continued in the same vein, and we never retreated to the sparse look of the Carter years.”
Michelle Obama likes cymbidium orchids and looser, garden-style flower arrangements, less formal than in previous administrations and sometimes more dramatic.
Devastating trade deals
U.S. flower growers’ troubles began in 1991, when the United States signed free-trade agreements with several South American countries, most notably Colombia, which was soon flooding the U.S. market with cheap, duty-free cut flowers.
The U.S. cut-flower industry was devastated, particularly in California, where most American flowers are grown.
Kasey Cronquist, chief executive of the California Cut Flower Commission, said the trade deals had forced as many as half of the country’s cut-flower farmers out of business.
Before the deals, they had about 75 percent of the domestic market and afterward about 25 percent.
Now most flowers sold in the United States arrive daily in Miami from South American growers.
Jeffrey Serafini — purchasing manager of Potomac Floral Wholesale, which sells flowers to the White House — said California spray roses cost him 60 percent more than spray roses from South America, although the South American roses have shorter stems.
It was not until 2008 that the remaining flower farmers realized they had to lobby just like the oil companies.
For years they have organized “fly-ins” so members of the group can fan out across Capitol Hill and plead their case.
But the cut-flower farmers had little success persuading the public to buy American since most Americans never thought to ask where the flowers came from.
Country-of-origin labeling for flowers did not exist, although today several large supermarket chains have started labeling their flowers if they are U.S. grown.
“Everything we tried to do for over a decade was not working,” said Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., whose Monterey Bay district produces a large portion of the nation’s roses.
The turning point came two years ago. “Local” was already a buzzword, and the consumption of domestic food and wine had assumed the cachet once ascribed to imported.
As far back as 1993, Hillary Rodham Clinton decreed that food served at the White House should be, like the wine, American.
So when Farr, once a Peace Corps volunteer in Colombia, was invited in April 2012 to travel with President Obama to a meeting in Cartagena, he lobbied the president aboard Air Force One about the plight of cut-flower farmers.
Farr said he had thanked the president for serving American food and wine at the White House but added: “If you want to completely use American, use your own flowers.”
The president, he said, “had no idea there is a big cut-flower industry in the country.”
On the same flight, Farr also lobbied Sam Kass, the Obamas’ personal chef.
Another push came from Kathleen Merrigan, who had started a popular “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative at the Agriculture Department. At her departure ceremony last year, she announced another program, “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Flowers,” and urged people to buy American.
Merrigan, now executive director of the Sustainability Institute at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., credited Kass, who golfs with the president, for getting the American flowers on the White House tables.
“I had multiple communications with Sam,” she said. “He took the ball and ran with it.”
Stephen Colbert, who sat next to Michelle Obama at the dinner, praised the flowers on “The Colbert Report” the next night, describing them as “upside-down hanging gardens” and giving them three “bravos.”
The arrangements were created by Laura Dowling, now the chief floral designer at the White House.
Other American cut flowers at the state dinner included ornamentals from Florida: alocasia, equisetum, nandina and liriope.
It is unclear what happened to them after the event, but arrangements used for dinners often find their way into other rooms afterward.
Generally, fresh flowers on the state floor of the White House, including the Blue Room, the Red Room and the Green Room, are put out at the beginning of the week and regularly refreshed, with never a wilted stem among them.
The White House, which declined to release its annual flower budget, would not say to what extent it uses U.S. flowers now or will in the future. But Merrigan said she had been told the state dinner was “not a one-off event.”
The cut-flower industry is ecstatic.
“Having the White House ensure that the flowers at the center of the table are as fresh, sustainable and local as the food during a state dinner shows great support to our family flower farms,” Cronquist said.