White House Flowers: Make a Statement


The WaPo reports that White House Chief florist Nancy Clarke is retiring, after 31 years. The WaPo’s most interested in the change this may bring to the style of flower arrangements in the White House–rather than oversized balls of flowers, we may get leaner, more contemporary arrangements.

But observers note her departure allows the Obamas to try some new things.

"Basically what we’re looking at is less is more," said Robin Sutliff of Georgetown’s Ultra Violet Flowers. ‘There are all kinds of ideas for being more progressive."

"When I see flowers at the White House, they all seem to be these big round balls," said Allan Woods, a favorite florist of D.C. decorators. "They’re very stiff and formal. The flower look could become looser and more contemporary. It would be fun to see them do more edgy arrangements. On the other hand, it is the White House."

But I’m more interested in the one thing that, Clarke says, has changed the most during her tenure at the White House: the globalization of flower production.

The biggest change? Thirty years ago, the florists were limited to locally grown, seasonal blooms until they started flying in fresh flowers from around the globe. "The whole world opened up," she said.

Yes, the whole world opened up. And with it much needed trade for developing countries, along with some absolutely horrible conditions for the workers in those countries. Most notably, Colombia, which has grown to become the world’s second-biggest flower exporter (after the Netherlands). Over that time, workers have been fighting for some protection from some of the abuse–exposure to toxic pesticides, insecure working conditions, and repetitive work injuries. This video, Poisoned Flowers, portrays both the problem and the progress–largely in response to European pressure–towards certifying some of the flowers based on the work conditions used in production.

Michelle Obama set a great example by starting an organic White House garden. This is another area where she can make a statement (particularly against the background of ongoing discussions of a Colombian trade pact): pick a new edgier florist. But also pick one who will use only flowers that are certified to have been grown and processed under conditions that are safe for the workers.

50 replies
  1. klynn says:

    Trader Joe’s has been noting on some of their floral item price tags “organic, fair trade” as well as “locally grown”.

    Thanks for this post EW. I bet this post will get Mrs. O’s attention.

    • Leen says:

      Klynn when I started shopping at Trader Joe’s in Columbus (stopped when I had to pick someone up at the airport) some years back I was in shock by the prices. I kept thinking they have to be whacking someone. Asked quite a few of the workers there what they were payed and about health care. Was pleasantly surprised. Can’t rememeber exact figures now but the pay started at well above minimum wage and went up rather quickly also relatively good health care coverage.

      • klynn says:


        WholePayCheck is quite a bit more shocking. We only do TJ’s for a few fairtrade items which are cheaper at TJ’s then other sources. Aldi’s and a garden seem to be our best bet. The farmer’s market’s tend to be a bit pricey here too. Even pick-your-own is up there price-wise around here. We try to support locally grown and local suppliers, but it does get challenging at times. We were with a co-op, but it folded.

        In terms of specialty foods (we have food allergies in our family) they can be quite competitive against other suppliers. We do get our peanut butter local at Krema.

        • Leen says:

          I used to come up to the downtown market in Columbus to sale mixed greens 15 years ago before the market moved. I could make a nice bundle of green at that market but then the other local farmers noticed how much I was pulling in just selling mixed greens (this had all ready happened at the Athens Market). The pressure was on as these folks started growing and selling the same produce I was bringing up from Athens. Soon it was not worth the drive on Saturday mornings at 5 a.m. to get to that market since the other organic farmers discovered the value in the mixed greens.

          Hey this is the way markets (local, national or international work)

          Gardens in your back yard, porch, patio (whatever one calls it) are so much fun for kids. Nothing like a fresh tomato and herbs from ones own garden.

  2. Palli says:

    small buds of opportunity everywhere and our First Lady will understand!
    Gives me hope as I wait for news of attention being paid to the rotting roots poisoned by torture, corruption and class selfishness under Cheney/Bush.

  3. Peterr says:

    It’s not just the vegetable garden and the flowers. Read those two quotes from the florists again:

    “Basically what we’re looking at is less is more,” said Robin Sutliff of Georgetown’s Ultra Violet Flowers. . . “When I see flowers at the White House, they all seem to be these big round balls,” said Allan Woods, a favorite florist of D.C. decorators. “They’re very stiff and formal. The flower look could become looser and more contemporary. It would be fun to see them do more edgy arrangements. On the other hand, it is the White House.”

    Change “flowers” to “dresses” and they could be discussing First Lady attire — sleeveless (Michelle) instead of stiff and formal (earlier FLs). Yet another sign that this is all an expression of Michelle’s own personality and approach to life.

    Nice post, EW!

  4. TobyWollin says:

    The other thing is this: It’s not as if we do not have a cut flower industry in this country.
    “Total Wholesale Value: The total wholesale value of floriculture crops grown by operations with $100,000 or
    more of sales in the 15-State program is $3.94 billion for 2007, up 2 percent from the revised 2006 total. These largest operations account for 96 percent of the total value of floriculture crops, but comprise only 47 percent of all producers. California contributed 25 percent of the total wholesale value in the 15 States. Florida ranks second with 23 percent; while Michigan, Texas, and North Carolina round out the top 5 States accounting for 9 percent, 6 percent, and 5 percent of the total, respectively….Cut Flowers: The wholesale value of domestically produced cut flowers is $416 million for 2007, 1 percent more than 2006. California’s value is $320 million, accounting for 77 percent of the total cut flower value in the 15 States. In 2006, the number of producers dropped 8 percent to 349.”

  5. BoxTurtle says:

    Perhaps I’m just grumpy this morning, but I think if Obama really wants to make a statement he ought to close the WH florist and deal with one or more of the 100+ within 5 miles of the WH.

    A WH florist. How much do we pay that person?!? And their staff. How much does it cost to get them their security clearences and keep them updated? I’m sure it’s a trivial amount of money in a multi-trillion dollar budget, but for some reason it’s annoying me this morning.

    Boxturtle (Before Bush, I thought I was a republican. Perhaps it’s just that rearing it’s ugly head)

  6. Kinmo says:

    In the flower shop where I work, we get flowers shipped in from all over the world. Many of them from South American countries. In one box of exotic flowers came an exotic hitch-hiker. I opened the box and the sleepy, eight legged, eight eyed creature made a get-away. Don’t know how it got along with the natives, but I sure hope it wasn’t a bad scene. International trade has opened the world to more than just business and people.

    Yes, BoxTurtle: I hope the local D.C. florists have a fair shake in this deal. It’s the way it should be, it’s OUR house.

  7. Mary says:

    I think this is a good idea, but that kind of certification is new to me. How good is the certification system for something like that?

    I do like big round balls of flowers as well as more modern arrangements, but I like flowers from the yard the best – roses from a florist never smell like roses from your yard.

    • Petrocelli says:

      Speaking of fragrance … we have a Jasmine Plant at the Sunny side of our home(indoors) and every month, it is deluged by fragrant, white buds, which is apparent the minute you enter the front door.

      Even in the deep Winter months, we have this reminder of spring and warmer days ahead and I agree, no amount of flowers from a florist can match that.

  8. earlofhuntingdon says:

    That’s a statement that would ring bells in more industries than the floral. Clothes, shoes, textiles, china, silver, furniture, building and decorative materials, both production and installation or service workers associated with them. All suffer from examples of similar working conditions.

    Focusing on these industries first would be a good start. They are areas within Michelle’s “job’s” traditional focus. But she can present them in a whole new light. Her changes would be exemplars of new priorities and they allow, but do not require, her to act more progressively than her more constrained husband. That’s even a tradition the GOP’ers follow (except in the case of Mrs. Cheney). Going local would be a great message about conservation, too. Oil may be less expensive than six months ago, but it won’t stay that way.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        The White House is constantly being repaired and redecorated, and parts of it are within her bailiwick. There are hundreds of symbolic acts she could use to send her desired messages. It’s especially helpful that her children are young and impressionable and asking all sorts of questions about things older children take for granted.

        One suggestion is that her staff find a WH christmas tree this year from Northern Virginia or Maryland. Vermont and Colorado and Canadian trees, for example, are heavenly, but I don’t think anyone but Rush and Newt would mind if she went local where possible. Not all the apples need to be round, red and perfect.

        • earlofhuntingdon says:

          And make sure all the holiday decorations throughout the year that use energy are “green”.

          • earlofhuntingdon says:

            A message of community and sacrifice lost on today’s corporate and political leadership. The “in crowd” version of that story would substitute tax shelters for the birds and beasts sheltering in their tree. (Christmas tree plantations were once favorite tax shelters sold to medical professionals.) It thinks only in terms of pulpwood and firewood, which is pretty much how corporate HR and Capitol Hill views the rest of us.

  9. Blub says:

    well.. speaking about flowerings and the Obama WH, it looks like the War on Terra is officially over, at least for us.

    MSNBC banner headine: “Obama: Al-Qaida is bigger threat to Europe”

    So after 8 years of chaos, war, fear, during which we were told that this country was on the brink of destruction by AQ, and after we proliferated that organization, threatening world security everywhere, we’re now being told “actually, AQ’s not really our problem.. it’s your problem now, Old Europe.” ;-P Yahoo.

    • ShotoJamf says:

      Sounds like the rhetoric might be (to some extent) designed to persuade some major European players to get on board the Afghan train. Not sure that one’s gonna fly, however…

      • Phoenix Woman says:

        The headline is as usual misleading. Here’s the Newsday take on what Obama said:

        Welcomed with thunderous cheers, President Barack Obama pledged on Friday to repair damaged relations with Europe, saying the world came together following the 2001 terrorist attacks but then “we got sidetracked by Iraq.”

        “We must be honest with ourselves,” Obama said. “In recent years, we’ve allowed our alliance to drift.”

        The new U.S. president said that despite the bitter feelings that were generated by Iraq, the United States and its allies must stand together because “al-Qaida is still a threat.”

        Speaking before a French and German audience at a town-hall style gathering, Obama also encouraged a skeptical Europe to support his revamped strategy for rooting out terrorism suspects in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and said Europe should not expect America to shoulder the burden of sending in combat troops by itself.

        “This is a joint problem,” Obama said on the cusp of the NATO summit. “And it requires a joint effort.”

  10. peterboy says:

    there are many things we can look at and go–you know they make that here, why have it flown or shipped in; that is really bad for the environment.
    for starters, not to mention all that crap that comes in containers from the far east and fills the big box stores.

    • ratfood says:

      I notice that much of the fruit (not exotic, apples for instance) at my local grocery are grown in New Zealand. Nothing against our friends down under, I’m happy that we trade with them. I just have difficulty understanding how it can be more profitable to grow an apple in New Zealand and ship it to Illinois than to sell apples grown in the U.S..

  11. crowinghen says:

    Last year my daughter was defending her masters thesis at Purdue and I wanted to send her some good luck flowers. I googled and found one long-time florist in Lafayette that noted on their website that had their own greenhouse, so I used them. I called and gave them the arrangement number I wanted from their website and asked if they could make it from their locally-grown flowers. They had to substitute a bit, but my daughter loved the arrangement and appreciated that I’d taken the time to find a florist that used locally grown flowers.

    How about a greenhouse at the White House where they could grow flowers and herbs and some veggies for WH use year round? Or at least find a local greenhouse to supply them in the colder months….

    • WilliamOckham says:

      Here’s a link to Bates decision. The short version is that prisoners who were captured outside of Afghanistan (and therefore not on the battlefield) have habeas rights under boumediene.

  12. alank says:

    My first exposure to the cut-flower industry abuses was Diet for a Small Planet back in the early 1970s. Lappé noted the poor land use in South American countries that could be better put to growing grains and whatnot that feed the local poor a healthy diet rather than supply the florist trade abroad. And yet flowers have always been very expensive to buy from a florist. Silk flowers in the White House wouldn’t be too terribly gauche, after all.

  13. JohnLopresti says:

    There was a definite mystique about a wild rose which grew along the street down the block on the walk to grammar school in one town where I lived. It takes still air and a special morning to catch the fragrance.

    There is a requirement for staving off fungus, molds, and the like in hothouses, though people interested natural horticulture are helping shift the emphasis from toxic chemical tools to less dangerous aids. From a 2007 hothouse floriculture report in one state: Methyl bromide Halogenated organic Fumigant, Insecticide, Herbicide, Nematicide. 1,3-Dichloropropene Fumigant, Nematicide. Chloropicrin Fumigant, Nematicide. Petroleum distillates, refined Insecticide. Potash soap Herbicide, Insecticide, Adjuvant. Piperalin Fungicide. Acephate Organophosphorus Insecticide. Fosetyl-Al Fungicide. Potassium bicarbonate Fungicide. Chlorothalonil Substituted Benzene Fungicide. Iprodione Dicarboximide Fungicide. Metam-sodium Fumigant, Herbicide, Fungicide, Microbiocide, Algaecide. Sulfur Fungicide, Insecticide. Daminozide Plant Growth Regulator. Mancozeb Fungicide. Thiophanate-methyl Fungicide. Fenhexamid Fungicide. Cyromazine Insecticide. Spinosad Insecticide. Glyphosate, isopropylamine salt Herbicide. PCNB Fungicide, Nematicide, Algaecide. Bifenazate Insecticide. Chlorpyrifos Insecticide, Nematicide. Metaldehyde Molluscicide. Pymetrozine Triazine Insecticide. Nonanoic acid Herbicide Fungicide. Dazomet Fumigant, Fungicide, Nematicide. Methiocarb Insecticide, Molluscicide. Myclobutanil Fungicide. Diazinon Insecticide. Piperonyl butoxide Synergist. Captan Fungicide. Acetamiprid Insecticide. Mefenoxam Fungicide. Azadirachtin Insecticide, Nematicide. Fludioxonil Fungicide. Diquat dibromide Herbicide, Dessicant. Dimethomorph Fungicide. Acequinocyl Insecticide. Dinotefuran Insecticide. Azoxystrobin Fungicide. Malathion Insecticide. Buprofezin Insect Growth Regulator. Triflumizole Fungicide. Excluded from the list are the various forms of pyrethrins, the latter especially toxic to cats but ok for dogs.

  14. JohnLopresti says:

    Then there is the spook drama concept which prompted Nick Turse to write lyrically about microphones implanted in mothlike objects flown by remote radio control, he says it is on the drawingboards, kind of a micropredator. The article is from a 2007 essay on future robotic conflict. Maybe degaussing all insects at the greenhouse vents would screen for spy bugs.

  15. Leen says:

    The real cost of shipping flowers and other produce and goods in never really factored in. the “real cost”

  16. dosido says:

    Well, this is an interesting development!

    I wonder if they will also use the White House roof as a place to plant in a sustainable way – but that might be an Al Gore thing. There are also “green walls” that arrange plants in a vertical surface that are pretty cool.

    For floral arrangements, I hope they go high style in a contemporary way. It could be pretty sculptural, like green spheres of grass or succulents and the like. I look forward to seeing what the Obamas choose.

  17. siri says:

    i’m betting she does something exactly like that, or that exact thing!
    she doesn’t seem to do anything without a lot of prior thought having gone into it.

  18. KiwiJackson says:

    Buy local, help the locale.
    I haven’t bought flowers for any occasion or anyone for what seems like some long time now but when the occasion warrants it’s the downtown Grand Central market or nearby farmers market. Locals here are up in Ventura and S.Barbara county for the most part.

  19. Leen says:

    “Think globalally act (buy) locally” Have always liked this one

    think about the “real cost” fuel, environment

    • behindthefall says:

      If we want local produce to buy, we’d better start seeing whether or not it is possible to grow vegetables that are safe to eat on land reclaimed from mall parking lots. Has the paving poisoned the soil? Can it be reclaimed? Can “roadside commercial” land that has gone belly-up from overdevelopment and economic downturn be put to better use? Can crops be raised while protected from traffic exhaust fumes?

      • Leen says:

        “don’t it always seem to go that we don’t know what we have until it’s gone. They (we) paved paradise and put up a parking lot” Joni

  20. fatster says:

    O/T, or back to the banksters. I trust this report is accurate. During his meeting with them last week, during which they hedged (sorry for the pun), Obama reportedly said: “My administration . . . is the only thing between you and the pitchforks.”


  21. Leen says:

    ot over at Huffington Post (which I seldom visit due to the endless focus on what people wear, hair and other assorted hogwash) there is a report up about some shooting taking place in New York having to do with immigration. (unable to link)

  22. bmaz says:

    This is exactly as it was when this exercise of releasing memos started; the spooks were always objecting. The Administration is suddenly more jittery though.

  23. Mary says:

    48 – there is a smidge of difference. *g* Originally they were claiming that the terrorists would win the GWOT if only they knew our super secret torture techniques. Then a couple of days ago I linked to Brennan fighting this release and the “sources” claiming that it would *needlessly offend* (I thnk that’s right, but I’ll opt out of quotes for now just in case) intel officers to release the docs.

    Now Brennan, in search of new talking points, is imitating David Milliband’s ploy before the UK High Court.

    See … it’s not “us” (or even “US”) that are bothered at the thought of the release, it’s that we might do damage to our torture/kidnap/childnap/bounty ties with foreign governments.

    … argued that release of the memos could embarrass foreign intelligence services who cooperated with the CIA, either by participating in overseas “extraordinary renditions” of high-level detainees or housing them in overseas “black site” prisons

    .emph added

    I’m thinking that ploy – of pointing fingers back and forth in separate vneues – is one that looks familiar, eh?

    The big irritating thing is that this is the same as it always was when Obama was promising transparency and a commitment to the rule of law, as was Holder.

    It’s always been the case that Pakistan – who we are trying to stabilize now – would get roiled some if the truth on detention, sales of kidnap victims, disappearances etc were to come out. After all – Musharaf threw Chaudhry off the bench when he was about to go there. It’s not going to go over well in Syria – which is making diplomatic ventures – to revisit its role in our torture conspiracy, including detailing of Canadian torture victims and also including anyone bothering to follow up on whatever happened to Noor al-Deen now that his name is out in connection with Zubaydah. It’s not going to be happy dance in the street time in Morrocco to begin to publicize how many Muslims had their genitals razored on the whim of US Christians. Thailand? Poland? UK? Various African nations —- um, yeah. There may just be some “issues”

    And that is different from when Obama was running for office … how? Not one politician I have ever heard address our torture program (and almost none even bother to address it) has ever flat out and flat up acknowledged to what extent we screwed the pooch – not just here at home but throughout the world vis a vis our “program.”

    Does it make us less safe by turning people against us? Sure, but it also gives people in the countries that assisted our torture/disappearance/childandwifenapping etc. programs that much more reason to not be supportive of their own govs. Govs we now want to pretend are stabilizing factors.

    So Brennan and Newsweek have gotten around to stating in the most cursory and shallow fashion possible something that has been an elephant in the room since the presidential torture programs started – and something that is MEANT, under the torture conventions, to be the elephant in the room. The whole POINT of the torture conventions is that countries engaged in such activities will be *embarassed.*

    So let’s fess it up – the “classified” info is that we will only follow the Torture Conventions and enforce the torture victims act and the war crimes act to the extent our laws, treaties and legislation don’t offend Presidential torturers or embarass Presidential torture partners.

    Well – that certainly makes us a beacon for the rule of law, doesn’t it?

    • bmaz says:

      Heh heh, I’ll be honest, such distinctions just blow by me anymore. I have basically reverted to a “fuck em and the horse they rode in on” mode. Of course that could partially be the margaritas…….

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