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A local bouquet

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Joan Thorndike is changing how we buy cut flowers one locally grown bouquet at a time

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of stories about women gardeners in the Rogue Valley.

Photo by Rhonda Nowak Joan Thorndike’s daughter, Isabella, left, inherited her love of plants from her mom. Isabella has a flower design business and spends part of her time harvesting flowers with Joan.
Photo by Rhonda Nowak Joan Thorndike grows garden roses in one of 12 hoop houses she keeps at Fry Family Farm in Medford.
Photo by Rhonda Nowak Joan Thorndike harvests flowers, like these ranunculus, in the morning so they are as fresh as possible for her clients.
Photo by Rhonda Nowak Delphiniums are one of Joan’s top-selling cut flowers.
Photo by Rhonda Nowak These beautiful pink ranunculus are popular for spring bouquets.

“Why can’t we have flowers that come from local fields? Or [flowers] that express the cycle of seasons? Isn’t that a more natural, and sustainable, way to bring flowers into our lives?”

— Debra Prinzing, “The 50 Mile Bouquet,” 2012

When Joan Thorndike started growing flowers commercially in the Rogue Valley in the early 1990s, no one was asking questions about where their cut flowers came from. If folks had thought to ask their florist, they would have learned that most of the flowers came from overseas, where they were grown in warmer climes and then packed in boxes on one of about 75 airplanes that fly into the U.S. each day filled only with flowers for the “fresh” cut market.

The exotic flowers that are flown in are pretty, but they come with a huge carbon footprint and they feel a bit lifeless — like china dolls on a shelf, always wearing the same expression on their pretty painted faces.

But back in the early 1990s, Joan, who moved to the Rogue Valley in 1984, wasn’t asking questions about cut flowers, either. She had studied biology and international economics in Chile, where she grew up in Santiago, but at the time she had two young daughters, Isabella and Camila, and she wanted work that would allow her to bring the girls along with her. There weren’t a lot of those kinds of jobs available.

One day her friend Margaret Kaiser approached her with an idea: “I’ve got a pasture that’s not being used. Why don’t we grow flowers and sell them?”

Suddenly, memories of Joan’s childhood days spent in her mother’s garden in Santiago came flooding back. “My mother had a classic English garden, and she would drag me around on tours, pointing out this plant and that one,” Joan recalled. “I hated it at the time, but I guess gardening got into my blood system.”

Joan decided to join Margaret in a flower farming adventure, and she soon discovered the climates in Southern Oregon and Santiago are similar, with cool, rainy winters and long, dry summers.

“We’re fortunate that we have a long growing season so we can grow so many different kinds of plants here,” she said.

Growing flowers was one thing, but selling them was a different story. “Growing and selling flowers locally was an outrageous concept at that time, but I felt I had nothing to lose,” Joan told me. “I found that I liked knocking on doors and pushing the idea of buying flowers that were grown right here.”

Boosted by the Slow Food movement, Joan set out to teach Americans to love local flowers, just as they were beginning to learn the benefits of eating locally grown, seasonal produce.

She talked a grocery store manager into setting out a few fresh flower bouquets, and they sold right away. One of the florists in town ordered a few buckets of flowers, and then asked for a few more.

That was 30 years ago, and since then Joan has only looked forward as the Slow Flower movement has gained momentum in the Rogue Valley and other parts of the U.S.

Slow Flowers encourages consumers to support their local economy by purchasing cut flowers that are grown locally, seasonally and ethically, rather than buying flowers imported from other countries or grown with chemical pesticides.

Joan has always grown her flowers organically because that provided the safest environment for her girls to play in while she worked.

As concern has increased over greenhouse gas emissions and their effects on the climate, more Americans are buying flowers that have not been transported thousands of miles before they reach the dining room table. Many couples are opting to buy their wedding flowers from local flower farmers like Joan, who sets out freshly harvested flowers in buckets for her clients to choose from only a few days before the wedding ceremony.

Joan provides a list of flora that will be available at different times of the year, and clients can visit the farm store in Medford to see the beauty, fragrance and vitality of locally grown cut flowers. The comparison is much like a tomato that’s picked right off the vine in summer and a winter tomato that was grown in Florida and purchased at a supermarket in Oregon.

For many years, Joan has grown more than 100 different plants for their flowers and foliage on two acres of land in Ashland and in 12 hoop houses at Fry Family Farm in Medford. Over the years, she has learned which flowers grow best in the unique microclimate of each location. Joan said last year’s water shortages made her more efficient with irrigation.

Growing flowers that she has an affinity for is important to Joan, but her business sense keeps her thinking about which flowers will sell well.

“I have to consider the labor intensity of growing certain plants and who’s going to buy them,” Joan said. She said some of her biggest sellers are delphiniums, sunflowers, lisianthus, eucalyptus and ferns.

Joan and her business, Le Mera Gardens, was one of the flower farms featured in Debra Prinzing’s book “The 50 Mile Bouquet” (2012). Joan was acknowledged as an early adopter of organic flower farming practices and for changing the way our community buys flowers “one locally grown bouquet at a time.”

I asked Joan to pick a favorite flower, and she said, “That’s like asking someone to pick their favorite child.” However, she did say that cutting the first anemones in springtime is always a thrill.

“It’s like the joy you see on the face of a small child who’s tasting the first strawberry of the season,” she said.

Here’s to fresh-picked strawberries, and to fresh-cut flowers that are grown right here in the Rogue Valley. Thanks, Joan.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. She is the founder of the Bard’s Garden at Hanley Farm in Central Point. Learn more at www.literarygardener.com, and email Rhonda at Rnowak39@gmail.com.