In the recurring series Souvenir Stories, Emily Spivack asks accomplished storytellers about memorable objects they've brought home from their travels. Here, artist Virginia Poundstone, whose work explores the economic structures behind the global flower market, shares the story of a piece of plastic that crystallized her understanding of industrial roses.

Virginia Poundstone
Credit: Courtesy Virginia Poundstone

I traveled to Colombia in June of 2013 to research how industrial flowers are grown. I wanted to document what was happening on these large-scale farms in the savanna of Bogotá, where the majority of the flowers we buy in North America come from.

I grew up in central Kentucky around agriculture and while I’m not a farmer, I understood agriculture in a way that was lived instead of just studied. I thought what I’d see in Colombia would be familiar, that I’d know what to expect. I quickly realized that the small family operations I saw in Kentucky—horse and tobacco farms—were very different from the farms in Colombia. I’d never seen something that could scale up in a way that produced so many products so quickly and on such a tight schedule.

The first farm I visited used more traditional production methods—all the carts were horse drawn and there was a lot of manual labor. The flower growing was done in greenhouses, in these big tents. You don’t see flowers growing in fields; you see a massive field of white-tented structures. The first tent I went into, which was about 200 feet long, was filled with tightly packed rows of roses that were six to eight feet tall. All the pickers were tending to their designated rows wearing these handmade metal framed platform shoes that elevated them at least a foot, some even taller depending on their height. I had never seen anything like it: the flowers were so tall, the tent was so high, the light was so diffuse, and the ground was so black because the dirt is very nutrient-rich.

One of the first things I noticed was these mesh things scattered all over the ground in the tent. I couldn’t figure out what they were until I realized that some of the flowers had these little fishnet socks covering the bud as it grows. This mesh sleeve is from that first farm. I picked it up off the ground in front of a row of roses labeled “pink lady.” I wanted to keep it, but I felt guilty, like I was stealing. I asked the manager and he thought I was out of my mind. He was like, yes, of course you can have that piece of garbage. But how about I also give you forty dozen roses? Which is what he sent me off with, even though I reminded him that I was only there for a short amount of time and staying in a small hotel room.

Pull quote

I learned that if it looks like a flower is about to open—and they don’t want it to—they put this sleeve on the bud. It delays blooming, so the flower will live longer. Flowers don’t release any fragrance until they open; the opening and the release of fragrance is the signal of their death, the beginning of their final stage, so the goal is to keep them as undead as possible when they’re shipped to market. As a result, the tents didn’t smell like flowers—they smelled very moist and green, a scent that reminds you of plants.

I thought the farm would be cozier somehow. I knew it would feel industrialized, but I didn’t realize just how unwild it would be. Prior to this trip, I’d gone to the Himalayas to search for the wildest flowers I could find—the blue poppy. When I returned, I thought, “If I found the wildest flower, can I find the least wild?” The exact opposite of the blue poppy is the blue rose. And while I knew I could see blue roses getting fabricated in labs in Europe, I realized I first needed an entry-level introduction to the industrial production of roses. That’s why I went to Bogotá.

Virginia Poundstone is a contemporary artist who lives in Brooklyn and travels the world for her work. She was the subject of a solo exhibition at the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in 2015 and her upcoming solo show at Phoebe in Baltimore, Maryland opens in early March.

Emily Spivack is a Brooklyn-based writer and the author of Worn Stories. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @emspivack.