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Plastic flowers for Mother's Day? Say it isn't so

New Hampshire Sunday News

May 05. 2012 9:39PM
Robert Demers, owner of Demers Garden Center in Manchester holds a plastic pot of tulips on the left and a 10- inch hanging basket on the right, on Saturday. (Thomas Roy/Union Leader)

Susanne Freidberg wants to make one thing clear from the start: 'I would never give plastic flowers to my Mom.'

Yet that's exactly what it sounded like Freidberg, a Dartmouth College professor of geography, was advocating on American Public Media's 'Marketplace' radio program last week.

Those who tuned in Wednesday on New Hampshire Public Radio heard Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal getting an unorthodox suggestion for Mother's Day from 'Freakonomics' author and regular contributor Stephen Dubner.

To reduce your carbon footprint this Mother's Day, Dubner suggested, give plastic flowers instead of real ones, which often are flown here from 'equatorial countries' and then trucked across the country, he said.

And there was Freidberg weighing in on the environmental merits of buying plastic flowers: 'Because they're so lightweight, they wouldn't need to be flown anywhere; they wouldn't decompose and produce greenhouse gases in any landfill; there's the endless lifespan, so the possibilities for regifting them.'

But Freidberg tells the New Hampshire Sunday News that they left out what she said right after that: 'I would never want to get plastic flowers.'

And she said figuring out the best purchase in any given situation is not just about a particular product's 'carbon footprint,' a measure of carbon dioxide emissions.

Freidberg, who has been studying the politics of measuring food's 'footprint,' said those plastic flowers are likely manufactured overseas, using materials that have their own environmental costs.

Brett Andrus is president of the New Hampshire Plant Growers Association and general manager of Churchill's Gardens in Exeter. He said choosing real plants is good for the environment.

'They do what plants do: They take the bad stuff out of the air and replace it with oxygen. There's a benefit to that.'

Andrus contends there are psychological benefits to choosing real plants as well: 'Seeing something grow, and nurturing something, taking care of something.'

Horticulture is the biggest agricultural industry in New Hampshire; it includes landscapers, greenhouses, sod growers and garden centers, Andrus said.

There are smaller growers here who raise varieties of cut flowers, such as carnations and snapdragons, he said. But most focus on bedding plants, the annual and perennial varieties many Granite Staters like to plant in their gardens this time of year.

Among his suggestions for Mother's Day gifts: the hydrangeas, roses and lilacs you can find at garden centers across the state. 'They're hardy; you have them every year.'

You also could go with daylilies, or even grasses, which are 'very popular right now,' Andrus said. And, 'There's a whole myriad of perennials that will be in color for Mother's Day.'

The bottom line for Mother's Day? 'Do you want to give your mother something that's dead or alive?' Andrus asked.

Robert Demers of Demers Garden Center in Manchester suggests a nice hanging basket of flowers for Mom. In his experience, he said, 'There's nothing that lights up Mom's face more than a nice big pot of flowers.'

He's not buying the fake flowers argument either; those are made overseas, so there's a big carbon footprint in getting them here, Demers said.

When you go to your local garden center to buy Mother's Day plants and flowers, Demers said, 'You're going to get a lot of homegrown material, and you'll be supporting New Hampshire agriculture.'

And when the flowers are gone, he said, the plants and soil can be composted and the pots can be recycled. In contrast, unwanted plastic flowers get thrown away. 'Now we've got something that will not break down for many, many years,' he said.

Freidberg said figuring out the environmental costs of any individual product is complicated. Even those nice local plants have carbon footprints if they're grown in heated greenhouses, or driven to the local farmers market in an old, gas-guzzling van, she noted.

In the end, she said, 'We can spend a whole lot of time and mental energy worrying about the carbon footprint of this product versus that product, but oftentimes those differences may be trivial compared to the larger lifestyle.'

'It's a much bigger deal when you're deciding what car to buy, what house to buy, whether or not to take that flight to Hong Kong,' Freidberg said. 'Those are much bigger decisions. You shouldn't feel guilty about the flowers.'

Her advice? 'For these little once-a-year displays of love - Mom comes first.'

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