Faintly fragrant and faded within a few days, many commercial flower bouquets betray the rigors of transport between grower, retailer and consumer.
But Joan Thorndike’s farm-fresh flowers, picked hours before and shipped mere miles, remain vivid and aromatic for a week or more. Their longevity arises from their locally grown and certified-organic roots.
“I wouldn’t know how to grow a non-organic flower,” says Thorndike, 59, of Ashland.
Like organic farming’s Slow Food movement, “slow flowers” symbolize peak-season splendor and sustainable cultivation. Thorndike’s Le Mera Gardens was an unlikely pioneer of alternatives to the floral industry’s widespread reliance on pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers. Since sowing the seeds of a wholesale cut-flower enterprise decades ago, Thorndike was featured in “The 50 Mile Bouquet,” by Debra Prinzing and David Perry, and lectured at this year’s Oregon State University Extension Small Farms Conference.
“I started farming flowers by accident,” says Thorndike, who founded Le Mera Gardens nearly 25 years ago. “I was farming in the dark; I had no idea what I was doing.”
The native of Santiago, Chile, did have firm notions about safeguarding the health of her two young daughters, who frolicked in the fields while she planted and picked. Her first full-time employee, says Thorndike, “came to work with a baby on her back.” Synthetic chemicals had no part in Thorndike’s operation.
“It’s just been a very simple answer.”
There’s never been a question of Le Mera’s viability among the region’s independent florists who, like others nationwide, purchase primarily from major distributors dealing in imported flowers.
“You grow local so you can show up with a flower that doesn’t look like it’s been in a box,” says Thorndike. “I never had any trouble selling them.”
Serving 11 florists from Ashland to Rogue River, Le Mera offers between 150 and 200 floral varieties on nature’s timetable. Solar-heated covers coax anemones to blossom in February, lengthening Le Mera’s season slightly. By October, zinnia, sunflowers and marigolds herald the end of Le Mera’s year. See month-to-month flowerl availability at www.lemeragardens.com.
“If we could get them all the time, then we would probably want to buy from her all the time,” says Cathy Wallace, co-owner of Heaven Scent Flowers in Eagle Point.
Wallace says she looks to Le Mera for unusual blooms that can be had on the same day she requests them. More and more bridal customers favor bouquets composed entirely by Le Mera, she says.
“Her lilies are amazing,” says Wallace. “I have a standing order for sunflowers.”
And while roses preside over numerous nuptials, many commercially produced buds lack scent, says Wallace. By comparison, Le Mera’s “garden roses” are heavily perfumed and boast full, frilly petals.
“They’re so extremely different,” says Wallace.
Being different was Thorndike’s goal from the beginning, when she brainstormed how to “wow” local florists. Delphiniums helped to establish Le Mera’s reputation for high-quality, unique items.
“You cannot ship a delphinium,” says Thorndike.
Filling buckets with the tall, blue-blossomed stalks, Thorndike visited local florists in her Subaru station wagon. Loading the vehicle for one of her countless trips, Thorndike caught the eye of farmer Steve Fry of Fry Family Farms, who shared his greenhouses with her until the time came to transfer seedlings to fields several miles away.
Fry and wife Suzy entrusted one of their acres to Thorndike’s care. She, in turn, lent her labors to other aspects of the Frys’ farm. The partnership has been growing strong for 12 years as flowers spread across 10 of the Frys’ 90 acres, known primarily for organic vegetables.
“Vegetables feed the body, but flowers feed the soul,” says Suzy Fry.
Although flowers typically aren’t grown to be eaten, says Fry, favoring organic ones is in the collective interest. Pesticides and herbicides applied to flowers taint local watersheds and soils that nourish the gamut of plant and animal life, she says. And workers exposed to toxic chemicals can suffer serious health consequences, she adds.
“They’re beautiful, but at what price?” asks Wendy Siporen, executive director of Thrive, whose organization develops area businesses and urges consumers to purchase locally and sustainably produced products.
Seasonality is just as intrinsic to flowers as to food, says Siporen. Farmers-market customers can look forward to delicate, pastel sweet peas alongside spring’s tender snow and shelling peas. High summer’s blossoms are as multi-hued as heirloom tomatoes.
“It’s a joy when that next crop comes in,” says Siporen.
Loathe to cite a favorite flower, Thorndike lavishes love on every blossom, even the cabbage-headed roses that lie dormant in the hottest days of summer and return for an encore in early fall. Such caprices, contrary to the steadfastness of silk arrangements, contribute to Thorndike’s passion.
“It’s a beautiful thing to see the cycle of life in your home,” she says. “It has a beginning, a middle and an end.”
PHOTO Joan Thorndike of Le Mera Gardens gets lost in her work with hydrangea flowers Wednesday. Thorndike has been growing and selling organic flowers in the Rogue Valley for 24 years. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch