Sustainable Florist Industry Blooms in Pittsburgh

When you think of floral arrangements, images of high end, perfect rose may come to mind. But a small business in Pittsburgh is demonstrating that conch shells picked up from Goodwill and repurposed or decayed logs make great pots. The Allegheny Frontís Kate Malongowski visited with two men who are part of this budding industry.

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When you think of floral arrangements, your mind might go straight to images of high end, perfect roses. But a small business in Pittsburgh is demonstrating that conch shells picked up from Goodwill and repurposed or decayed logs make great pots, and that locally foraged berry canes and asparagus can give a bouquet a special and sustainable touch. The Allegheny Frontís Kate Malongowski visited with two men who are part of this budding industry.

MALONGOWSKI: At the Pittsburgh Public Market, a year-round farmers market specializing in locally produced foods, the first thing shoppers see is a booth with lush greens cut in bunches.... And what might be mistaken for miniature blue roses are actually unusual campanula flowers. In another spot, are sweet peas with long vines.

MALONGOWSKI: OK, so show me what you have on display here and how does that change from week to week?

WEBER: Yeah. So, what we have is always different. This week, weíre focusing primarily onÖ Well, since itís nice and warm, and itís May already, weíre focusing on some perennials and annuals for your yard. We also have a selection of house plants that we carry all year round. We also have cut flowers from time to time, depending on the season.

MALONGOWSKI: This is Green Sinner, a sustainable florist. Co-owner Jonathan Weber, answers the obvious question: Whatís with the name?

WEBER: Thereís something not quite green about cutting flowers and taking them to a vase so they can die....

MALONGOWSKI: But still, thereís an attempt to be a little saintly here... Weber, whoís the so-called ìFarmer Generalî says other florists are likely to get their flowers shipped from South America, using refrigeration and chemicals to make them last the trip. However, the plants Green Sinner grows are chemical- and pesticide-free. Weber and business partner Jim Lohr say Itís kind of a throwback to how things used to be.

WEBER: With the advent of refrigeration and more transportation options and that sort of thing, flower production concentrated in the United States in a few places, mainly California, but also the Pacific Northwest, tulips and some other flowers in the Great Lakes states, and actually, believe it or not, Pittsburgh was one of the big centers for rose growing in the United States.

LOHR: And carnations. (laughs)

WEBER: Rose and carnations, yeah. Two of the most popular cut flowers....

WEBER: But then in the last, well, especially in the last, maybe five to 10 years, thereís been a real push again towards local flower growing. Just as there has been in food, people are starting to think about where their flowers come from, whether itís worth all that energy cost.

MALONGOWSKI: Weber says he cuts flowers the same morning he takes them to sell at the market. Cut flowers shipped into the country may have been cut a week or two from the time theyíre purchased. Also, because of the short transit time, locally cut flowers keep longer in vases. As for the locally grown plants, all come from within 500 miles of the city. But the business makes exceptions. Lohr, who says his job title is Chief Eccentric Officer, explains.

LOHR: If a bride comes to us and says ëI want orchidsí, yes we can find some local orchids... But if I have to order orchids from Thailand, Iíll order orchids from Thailand and take that sin and do what we have to.

MALONGOWSKI: But Lohrís clearly more excited about the kind of bride whoís open to using family heirlooms for the reception.

LOHR: We have a wedding coming up, and the brideís grandmother who passed away a few years ago. The brideís grandmother had an extensive china collection. So we are using the soup terrines from grandmaís china as her centerpieces. Theyíre going to be the bases of this beautiful, decadent containers that are going to be repurposed used for the ceremony. Itís a wonderful touch, touch point with her mom, who is like, grandmaís here. So we got to have that sense of connection and communication through the generations. I love it.

MALONGOWSKI: Both of the owners of Green Sinner say theyíre kind of farm kids at heart. Weber is from Michigan. Lohr has a personal tie to the region--he was raised in Bedford County in south central Pennsylvania. The wooden beams that frame the Green Sinnersí booth are old supports from his childhood home. Thatís where he developed an affection for the local flora.

LOHR: I grew up cutting dandelions in grandmaís yard to use them for salads and using whatever there was available in nature to create beauty. So whenever the peonies bloomed, grandma would always have peonies on the table. When the lilacs bloomed, we would have lilacs. So thatís a sense of our business and really how this came about.

MALONGOWSKI: Green Sinner is about a year and a half in the making. Lohr says that there are unique problems the business faces--one of the biggest challenges is the weather.

LOHR: Mother Nature threw that month at us where it was incredibly hot. Things started to wake up and then they started to bloom ahead of schedule.

MALONGOWSKI: Dogwoods were in bloom two weeks early. So were the lilacs. But itís worth rolling with the punches and working other jobs on top of running the business.

WEBER: But thatís the nature of local flowers, you know? Itís whateverís in season is available, based on the weather, and all those sorts of things.

MALONGOWSKI: For the Allegheny Front, Iím Kate Malongowski.