How L.A.’s flower district vendors are feeling the effects of climate change

Lilacs quietly tell the story of climate change. Since the 1950s, phenologists across the U.S. have used them as an “indicator plant” to track the start of spring because of their extreme sensitivity to temperatures. Their blooms elucidate the first warm day of the season as not just a feeling, but a fact. There’s an entire “lilac network” that stretches from coast to coast, made up of volunteers who have spent decades documenting the exact days that the buds burst open and winter becomes a passing thought.

As it turns out, lilacs have been blooming one day earlier every three years since 1973. During those interim years, however, lilac blooms have come early, late, as anticipated—all an indicator of increasingly erratic weather.

Although Sou Sisoumankhara works with flowers all day in the Los Angeles Flower District, when she can, she drives to a friend’s farm in Acton, California to handpick lilacs. It’s something she says “everyone should do in their lifetime if they get the chance—go to a lilac farm just after they’ve bloomed and smell the lilac as you cut them by hand.” By mid-March, it’s usually time to make her annual pilgrimage to gather the tumescent blooms. This year, they hadn’t opened until mid-April.

“The lilacs are late. The hydrangeas are freezing. The roses are rotting.” The climate crisis weaves its way into conversations around L.A.’s flower markets, vendors and wholesalers exchanging observations of which flower species are struggling, mutating into unrecognizable forms, or dying en masse. What may have been attributed to “strange weather” just a few years ago at the market is now named outright: climate change. While many flower businesses continue to face destabilization by the pandemic, what once felt like the slow burn of an unpredictable climate has become an unavoidable blaze. What’s available at the markets has always been at the whim of weather, but capricious has shifted into catastrophic as heatwaves, drought, flooding, cold fronts, and wildfires disfigure and destroy crops globally, from Ecuador to Ethiopia and all across the United States.

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