Why Floral Foam Just Feels So Wrong
Being an organic flower farmer, I'm fueled by the tenet that if I treat my soil like gold, everything else will fall into place. This is why it's pretty hard and unsettling to see my nutrient-rich, hand-grown flowers undergo so many nasty compromises in the steps between the picking them from the field and ultimately arranging them in a vase. There's the bleach that all flower farmers use to sterilize their flower buckets (which now stains a healthy majority of my clothes), the hydrating solutions added to the buckets of some varieties to encourage them to take up water, the energy consumed by walk-in coolers running at full blast to keep the flowers in their 'cold chain'. Necessary evils, I'd say, to help promote a long vase life for these flowers we've worked hard to grow.
But floral foam, so peculiar a substance that it boasts safety when wet but warns against breathing or touching when dry, is this evil truly necessary?
The rampant use of this highly toxic, grossly non-biodegradable foam in the modern floral industry has always felt a little off base to me. I remember the first time I worked with the stuff.
I was about 6 years old, sitting at the kitchen table with my grandmother at her house on Cape Cod. I was there on assignment, as I'd gotten it into my head that I was a budding talent scout and film director. I set out produce a talent show that would feature the 'rising stars' of my extended family (and there were many to choose from, being Irish Catholics).
In some cases I really missed the mark. During pre-production, I hand-wrote letters to my future stars, and I'll never forget the response I got from my uncle David: "Dear Lennie, thank you for the kind request to be in your film. I don't, however, actually know the first thing about how to do bird calls. Could you be confusing me with someone else?".
Oops. A case of bad information. (Assistant fired).
In other cases I struck creative genius: Who knew Uncle Peter would do the PERFECT Pee Wee Herman dance, my Aunt Mary ('Baum") did a killer deviled egg demo, and even Uncle Rob and his insistence upon reciting the Canterbury Tales (I was confused for years afterwards - what language was that?). The would-be star of the show, if not riddled with a sudden and crippling case of stage fright, was yours truly. When it came time to turn the camera around for my shining moment, my formerly rousing rendition of Whitney Houston's The Greatest Love Of All came out a whispered mess as I hid behind a chair. Not my finest moment.
But I digress. Nana, never known to take a task lightly, cheerfully agreed to lead a flower arranging segment in the film.
My grandmother grew up on a farm, though I only knew her as a suburbanite. Apparently she was quite the bad-ass woman of the earth in her day, wrangling pigs and growing potatoes. The word is that later on in life, it was my grandfather who grew the flowers in their suburban garden, but Nana arranged them. For this particular 1987 talent show, she demonstrated how to arrange flowers into a simple basket filled with, you guessed it, floral foam. I remember it being really dry and crumbly and was sort of perplexed about just what exactly it was as she instructed me to shove flowers into it at whatever angle I chose ("They'll stay put! It's magic!").
Well, now we know what's in it. Though it's hard to find concrete information on the manufacturer’s American website, I recently stumbled upon the highly informative Riverwolfxo Shop online, which linked me to the Australian manufacturing site that actually displays the data sheet for this foam. Here's one of their more salient warnings.
"Foam stored in stagnant or hot enclosures may result in off gassing of residual formaldehyde gas. Wash thoroughly after handling. Observe good personal and industrial hygiene procedures. When foam is soaked or used in water, some low levels of residual formaldehyde may accumulate in tub water. Repeated skin immersion in water containing formaldehyde has caused skin rashes, particularly in sensitive persons. It is recommended that impervious latex or chemical resistant gloves be worn and water tubs be emptied regularly."
You're supposed to wear gloves and protective clothing, wash if it gets on your skin, and work in a highly ventilated space. If you've ever been in a design studio, where you’re on the clock to bust through tens of arrangements in a day with a highly perishable product, you know that none of this is happening. But working quickly to meet your margins at the expense of personal health and safety is of course nothing new.
The Australians seem to really be on top of the floral foam research. This particular article consulted several scientists, but I'm not sure I feel very settled by their findings. They say that there's less formaldehyde in these small chunks of foam than in the huge swaths of insulation in our homes, and that when they took the liberty of sniffing the foam, they “didn't catch any whiff” of formaldehyde . Do either of those findings put anyone at ease? And beyond the disaster floral foam could wreak on our personal health as florists, how in the hell is all of this stuff affecting the rest of the planet as we use it one time for a 6-hour event and then toss it in a landfill for the rest of eternity?
Beyond that, and looping back to the emotional genesis of this post, I'd suggest that there's just something that feels wrong about mixing my precious flowers with this nasty stuff. All snark aside, let's take a moment to wax poetic about flowers grown on a small farm.
The flowers I grow are surely the purest part of my life. They're conceived deep in winter when I'm sun-deprived and day-dreaming of rows of color blowing in the wind. The packets of seed arrive via snail mail (how romantic!) and I still get excited feeling their weight in my hands. In spring I watch the days warm up and the soil dry down a little bit more every day, waiting for that perfect soil moisture level where I know we can go in and dig around without compromising it's structure and squashing out valuable air space. When it's deemed ready, or when I can’t wait any longer, we mix in fresh compost that we get from small local operations, which has often taken months of careful tending to become fully broken down and ready to feed my soil.
Then the seeds get sown, each one slipping through our fingers as it gets buried in the ground. We may walk by that seed a hundred times over the season before it matures into a plant that grows the flowers that we later cut and fawn over before carefully matching with just the perfect shades of complementary color and contrasting textures in a bouquet handed off to a couple looking to celebrate their love while clinging on to these living, breathing, beautiful things grown from the earth.
How does that process fit with the image of a piece of floral foam, sitting forever in a landfill?
Let's go ahead and count this product on the (long) list of mistakes made in the convenience-driven 1950's, and admit that if Nana was around today and had the luxury of learning what went into this substance, however handy it seemed, she'd turn it down. Just as it took our country many decades to realize that if you can't pronounce the ingredients in your food, you shouldn't be eating it, when you learn that floral foam is made of fine-celled thermoset phenolic plastic foam, with formaldehyde as an active ingredient, it's enough to make you want to put it down. Hey, the royal wedding was able to do it.
I don't think the spirit of my grandparents' flowers is alive and well in these perfectly square, toxic products of the modern floral industry. Let's do better.
In the next post I'll share how we design foam-free wedding arches. It’s a little more work, but hey.