By Michelle Werts

Roses. Credit: Robert Couse-Baker/Flickr

For years, we’ve been told that nothing says “I love you” quite like a red rose — except maybe a diamond ring. But does that red rose love the environment? Survey says: Relationship complicated.

The Society of American Florists reports that more than 85 percent of fresh-cut flowers in the U.S. are imported every year. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which is responsible for inspecting all imported flowers, says that in 2011, it processed 5.1 billion cut flowers, 802.5 million of which were processed during the Valentine’s season. Breaking down the figures even further, imported fresh-cut roses in 2011 were valued at $365.4 million according to the U.S. Census Bureau. What does all of this tell us? A humongous amount of flowers are traveling a long way to surprise your sweetheart. And travel means carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas production.

A 2007 comparative study by England’s Cranfield University revealed that 12,000 cut roses emitted almost 5,000 pounds of CO2 during their production in Kenya and delivery to the U.K. The same number of roses from the Netherlands emitted more than 77,000 pounds of CO2. It’s figures like these that result in calls for going local, right? Not so fast.

Roses in Edwards, Miss.
Roses in Edwards, Miss. Credit: Natalie Maynor/Flickr

One thing that accounted for the major difference in the CO2 production in Kenya and the Netherlands was growing conditions. In Kenya, it’s hot pretty much year round, which means less energy consumption in the growing process. In the Netherlands, greenhouses are needed, which equals a whole lot of additional energy demands. As you can imagine, buying local roses in snow-covered regions of the U.S. for Valentine’s Day might be tricky. As Vince Butera, a florist in York, Penn., tells the York Daily Record, “I believe in buying locally when I can, but there are no growers in York County, so I bring in a lot of flowers from California …”

For many people, though, carbon isn’t the only concern when it comes to imported flowers. Most U.S.-imported flowers come from Ecuador and Columbia, where Audubon reported in 2008 that 20 percent of the chemicals applied in flower production are restricted or banned in the United States and Europe. Not to mention concerns over worker health related to pesticide use and other labor rights concerns.

So, going local it is, yes? A qualified yes. Qualified? Going local is good, but going local creatively is better. Are cut roses that wither and die really the best way to say you care? Maybe a potted, local plant instead. Or a handmade treat or craft — not necessarily made by you if you lack the skills. Perhaps a gift of trees through a certain forest-loving nonprofit. For Valentine’s Day, and other gift-giving holidays, remember that there are lots of ways to show you care, but not all ways are green.