Stop and ’Gram the Roses

Instagrammers’ passion for flowers is damaging to small farms.

A field of flowers and trees with a sign in front reading "STAY OUT OF ORCHARD."
Patrick McGuire

For the past 48 years the Trujillos, my fiancée Ella’s family, have upheld a tradition of selling lush peony bouquets grown from their southern Colorado farm every Memorial Day weekend. Every spring, the peony plants tucked under apple trees burst into a stunning array of pink, red, and white flowers. As they sell flowers, they also open up the orchard to guests who can amble along designated walking paths, take pictures, or even try their hand at plein air painting.

The Trujillos’ peony farm is not a money-making venture. Most years, the money earned from Memorial Day flower sales doesn’t cover the steep cost of water (the farm’s home of Pueblo, Colorado, is very dry), let alone the year-round maintenance needed to keep the peonies abloom. Two of Ella’s aunts live on the property full-time, but the rest of us pay to travel to the farm from out of state. The Trujillos view the tradition as a community service to the people of Pueblo. But a recent burst of visitors is posing a threat to the flowers more imminent than the rising price of water or the encroaching invasive sweet peas.

Influencers, bloggers, YouTubers, and onlookers go to great destructive lengths to snap and share pictures of flowers. After local officials closed roads to Walker Canyon during a “super bloom” in California, “aggressive Instagrammers” parked on the freeway to get access to the wild poppies growing there. In 2018, a sunflower farm in Ontario, Canada was forced to shut down due to a “zombie apocalypse” of photo-seekers. After refusing to leave, one visitor reportedly threatened to fight a caretaker of the farm.

When I was first invited to the peony farm five years ago, the event drew around 50 people. It was a casual family get-together interrupted every so often by mostly elderly visitors dropping by to purchase flowers. But the farm’s popularity has exploded since photos of the orchard were shared over social media. Nearly 1,000 people visited the property this year, and we smashed a half-century record after selling over 700 bouquets.

In years past only Judy, the farm’s 75-year-old matriarch, was allowed to pick peonies. This year, Ella and I were hastily enlisted as designated pickers to accommodate the swelling mass of visitors. Between the three of us, we picked 9,000 flowers over a four-day period. Memorial Day weekend at the farm now demands the family to devote every ounce of their energy to picking, bundling, and selling peonies.

The family is also grappling with how to protect their tradition’s legacy against disrespectful visitors. The main culprits are those who ignore signs and hop over boundaries to snap selfies and record videos in the orchard. Peonies take years to bloom, and new plants are tiny and vulnerable. One careless step could wipe out years of growth and future generations of flowers.

The display of unabashed rudeness and entitlement we saw in the orchard this year was a perfect foil for the pristine, silent beauty of the peonies. One man stepped over a rope boundary, crouched down, and started snapping pictures of his body immersed in flowers. “Get back on the path! Right now, please!” Judy yelled as she rushed toward him. In a way that Don Draper would dismiss a nosy secretary, the man held up one hand in a “just a minute” gesture and continued taking photos with the other until he was satisfied.

The majority of the offenders were parents trying to capture pictures of their kids wandering whimsically through the flowers. From the corner of my eye, I’d see a parent lift the rope barrier and lead their children into the orchard. A quick “excuse me” was usually all it took for these parents and their kids to get back to the designated path. Usually. Two chicly dressed women lifted their children over a wooden barrier from across the orchard. Then they hopped the barrier and filmed their kids running around in the flowers. We called out over the distance, instructing them to get back on the designated path, but they ignored us. It wasn’t until we were a few feet away that one of the women acknowledged us. “You’re not allowed to be down here,” I said. In a rushed tone, ready for combat, the woman started shouting over me while the other turned the camera on us. “We didn’t see the signs, OK?! Relax! We were just in here for a second!” After the women finally left, Ella’s aunt saw one of their boys wandering around a different part of the orchard swatting peonies with a stick. They left without buying flowers.

The women thought we were inhibiting their experience, but we were really trying to protect it. Flower destinations like the Trujillo’s are simultaneously celebrated and tarnished by Instagram, and, though I can’t prove it, I’m certain the women were driven to break the rules in a quest to share unique content of their kids over social media. It’s hard to imagine another scenario where two thirtysomething mothers would misbehave so abhorrently in public for any other reason.

In response to disrespectful flower-stomping photo-seekers, Instagram accounts have cropped up to hold offenders digitally accountable. With more than 55,000 followers, “OUR PUBLIC LANDS HATE YOU” calls out those who pose for pictures in restricted areas by reposting their images attached with new captions of pious diatribes.

But whether we’re fixated on capturing videos of kids frolicking through flower fields or Instagram posts aimed at shaming those who break rules and destroy nature, we seem to be missing the point—the flowers themselves. We’re so caught up in the rituals of documentation and being outraged by the experiences we interpret through social media that we forget to, well, have actual meaningful experiences ourselves. If one of social media’s aims is to help us “live our best life,” then something fundamental seems to be broken inside our collective relationships with digital photo- and video-sharing platforms. The interaction with the women left me feeling bitter for weeks, but today I feel bad for them for not being able to fully enjoy the very thing they were breaking rules to get closer to.

The Trujillos are just beginning to confront the serious consequences of tech’s double-edged impact on the legacy they’ve been constructing for a half-century. After the last visitors left the evening of Memorial Day, we discussed everything from hiring security guards to building taller barriers to protect next year’s flowers. For better or worse, the world now knows about the Trujillos’ stunning flower farm.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.