By Lauren Craddock and Sofia Quaglia
The delicate rose your lover gave you today was born in a land far away, tended to by experts working hard and meticulously, and then shipped off on a perilous journey worth millions of dollars and a race against time, before landing on your lap.
Valentine’s Day is the biggest day for the rose business in the United States. That’s true especially when the holiday falls on a weekday, because lovers will send flowers to their partner’s office or home, instead of taking their loved one for a weekend getaway or out for a special dinner , according to Jenni Sparks from the Society of American Florists. More than 250 million roses were produced for last year’s Valentine’s Day (approximately 69 percent of those were red), and although only 28 percent of adults tend to purchase roses, they’re planning to spend over $1.9 billion this year, according to the National Retail Federation.
A greater global interest in the holiday of Valentine’s Day, especially from Russia, has also helped the rose trade boom as has the increasing societal acceptance of women sending roses to their partners and same sex couples celebrating the holiday. All of these have driven the growth in the rose business: in 2018, for example, 15 percent of purchases for roses were by women.
According to the book A Rose By Any Name, written by Stephen Scanniello, a rose cost $3.75 at New York florists in 1898. In today’s dollars, that would be equivalent to $114.21. Thankfully, that’s not the price roses go for nowadays; a single rose costs anywhere from $5 to $8 a bloom, according to Bloom Nation, an online floral marketplace. A dozen roses will cost you $80 on February 14, but almost half the price the next day (try making that case to your sweetheart). And over the years, while prices have increased, there has been less change in rose prices than in perishables like cabbage.
Your rose was most probably born in Colombia, or Ecuador, where 90 percent of roses sold in the USA are imported from, according to a 2018 report by the Society of American Florists. Although roses harvest in four or five rotations a year, flower growers manipulated the harvest’s natural cycle and cut all their buds in November, no matter how far along they were, so that your rose could grow specifically to be ready for Valentine’s Day. That means sacrificing a whole cycle of crops for the valentine rose cycle. Meanwhile, farmers opened online auctions so florists around the world could bid to purchase their harvests.
After 65 to 80 days, in February, your rose was plucked by careful fingers, one by one. From that moment, it had 19 days left to live. It was packaged carefully, placed in coolers in a post-harvest hydration solution, graded, and put on cargo flights to arrive in Miami within hours.
“Logistics is the biggest challenge the floral industry faces, so many planes that fly down to South America want to have cargo going down in order to bring cargo back, and that’s difficult,” said Molly Mullins from WF&FSA, the Wholesale Florist and Florist Supplier Association.
In fact, during the rest of the year, roses are often shoved in passenger flights with people’s luggage. That’s just 10 percent of the inventory needed for Valentine’s Day, so new cargo flights must be added to the calendar. Roughly 30 cargo jets fly from Colombia to Miami every day in the three weeks leading up to the big day, according to The Washington Post. And all of this, of course, can get even more complicated with the changing U.S. trade laws.
“The uncertainty of it all affects the process, because retailers are not exactly sure what they need to be charging their customers,” said Mullins. Nic Faitos, a florist who’s been in the business for over 32 years, said that the flower world is starting to panic about those laws. He’ll be heading to Washington in March to participate in government lobbying for trade legislations, and although he’s not seen an increase in the cost of roses, he’s had to pay more for auxiliary products – like glass vases – which often come from China.
While all this plays out, your Valentine rose this year landed in Miami, together with thousands of others, in a 24-hour cycle of arrivals for the Valentine’s Day rush. Government inspectors from United States Department of Agriculture officials sifted through the piles of flowers for drugs or other smuggled paraphernalia, and then people from importer businesses were ready to process the roses in temperature-controlled warehouses, stack them on refrigerated trucks, and drive them across the country. Making sure the roses maintain the proper temperature control throughout the whole chain is vital to the process, so the buds aren’t slowly murdered by a couple degrees of too much heat.
Once the flowers reach the wholesalers, independent florists pick them up in bulk and take them to their stores, calculating exactly the amount of days they have before they’re sold, and whether their pre-orders can fulfill customer demands precisely.
Florists do eight to ten times a normal day’s business on Valentine’s Day and must hire and train additional sales people and delivery drivers to fulfill the huge demand, according to Jenni Sparks from the Society of American Florists.
Faitos, head of Starbright Floral Designs, said he got to work for this year’s holiday on February 11th and has been going full speed, taking “ cat naps and small showers since.” The phone rang relentlessly in the background with new orders as he spoke. He’s got two refrigerated trucks outside the store to handle the 30,000 extra stems he expects to sell this week. Since his shop has reached capacity, he cut off the phone on the evening of the 13th and stopped taking reservations, until mid-day on the 14th. He did so the shop can get through all its deliveries on orders that came through as early as January.
“The first orders are placed in January, by the 31st we had 20 orders. But from February 10th to the 14th orders start to double every day, from 4,000 to 8,000 to 16,000 flowers,” he said, adding that he expects to send out 20,000 flowers on Valentine’s Day. He added chuckling that Valentine’s Day is a man’s holiday, so it’s last minute by nature.
But the journey of a rose does not stop once it’s gifted to somebody. Sometimes there are leftovers.
“Well hopefully on the 15th there’s no roses left, if they’ve calculated everything correctly,” said Molly Mullins from the Wholesale Florist Association. But that’s not always the case, and like in any other industry, retailers have to figure out how to manage their waste.
“Sometimes we have arrangements with charities and non-profits, and hand off our extra flowers to them,” said Mullins.
Repeat Roses, a start-up which specializes in picking up flowers from events or celebrations and then repurposes them, is an organization pioneering this business model to manage waste in the flower industry. They explain that hundreds of pounds of flowers wind up in the trash after big events, after only being enjoyed for a couple hours at max. They have partnerships with women’s shelters and elderly homes to bring these flowers to them for a week, and then go pick them up again to compost.
At the end of the day, Shakespeare would argue that a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet.