Flowers from afar go far to show true feelings
A rose cut on a farm in Ecuador might arrive at BW Wholesale Florist's cooler in the Strip District in 36 hours.
“That's if all things go well,” owner Mike Ulrich said. And in the week leading up to Valentine's Day, BW expects to unload a half million roses — 10 times the typical volume — from trucks that arrive at its Smallman Street bays.
Valentine's Day and Mother's Day are the busiest times of year for the floral products wholesaler, which sells to about 300 florist shops within 120 miles of Pittsburgh.
“But Valentine's Day is more rose-specific,” Ulrich said, “and there's a demand for a higher-quality rose. The consumer is becoming more discerning and looking for newer varieties — colors, petal count and head size really have improved.”
Most roses delivered in midwinter to Western Pennsylvania wholesalers and other buyers grow in Colombia, Ecuador or Venezuela. Mountain farms with direct sun from the Equator are best suited to grow the large, multicolored flowers in demand for Thursday.
Gift-givers will spend $1.9 billion this year on Valentine's Day flowers, up 5.5 percent from 2012, the National Retail Federation projects. About 35 percent will send bouquets, arrangements or single roses, compared with 51 percent who give candy.
Blake Pavlik, 23, of Apollo stopped at Oliver Flower Shop, Downtown, to order roses, daisies and lilies for his girlfriend. “It's tradition, and she likes them,” he said.
Farms in upper South America began producing large volumes of flowers in the 1970s as supermarkets added floral departments, said Robert McLaughlin, CEO of Organic Bouquet, a Florida company that sells eco-friendly grown flowers, baskets of organic fruits and other products.
About 70 percent of cut flowers sold in the United States, a $20 billion-a-year industry, come from Colombia or Ecuador where the largest growers might have 400 to 500 acres of greenhouse space.
“The combination of light and altitude, more than 9,000 feet above sea level, produces the large-headed rose that consumers want today,” McLaughlin said. “There is no other place in the world with that combination of conditions.”
Many floral businesses in the Northeast ceased year-round rose production decades ago, as costs increased to keep greenhouses warm and higher-quality imports captured more market share.
Valentine bouquets often feature alstroemeria lilies, gerbera daisies and mini carnations.
“But roses are still the top sellers, 10 to 1,” said Mark Guffey, an owner of the Johnston the Florist chain of shops based in North Huntingdon.
At floral departments inside Giant Eagle supermarkets, “We see customers looking for a fresh approach to the holiday, purchasing roses in a range of colors such as beautiful pinks, creams, peaches, oranges and greens,” spokesman Dick Roberts said.
Guffey said about half his orders come through wire services FTD and Teleflora, compared to 20 percent in the 1990s.
Megan Rumshock's Fragile Paradise shop Downtown, however, fills fewer Teleflora orders these days; they make up about 25 percent of her business. She tells customers it's better to call shops directly when possible, to avoid fees.
“We have our own website,” said Rick Conley, owner of the Oliver shop. He said www.oliverflowers.com does well. About 30 percent of orders come through FTD or 1-800 Flowers.
Savvy consumers search online to find close shops, he said.
Refrigerated planes and trucks take flowers the 3,000 or so miles from South America to Western Pennsylvania. Cut blooms, cooled to 36 degrees at the farm, travel in aluminum air freight containers for the three-hour flight to Miami. There, they must clear customs and Department of Agriculture inspections before going to wholesale consolidation points.
Teams of two drivers each then start the nearly nonstop journey north, keeping the flowers dry and at just above freezing temperature. Water would freeze, damaging leaves and petals.
In many cases, “The flowers you get for Valentine's Day are cut two to three weeks before you get them” and kept cold to stay fresh, said Rob Berghage, a Penn State University associate professor of horticulture.
Typically, the farm-to-consumer journey takes a week. “I get flowers in three or four days before the florist uses them,” said Bob Baker, co-owner of Dbec Wholesale Co. of Hempfield, which ordered 200,000 roses for 400 florists a month before this season.
Ulrich established BW Wholesale's Pittsburgh location in 1997, and in the past year expanded the nearby Keystone Ribbon & Floral Supply Co. to furnish florists with wreath forms, vases and other items. The business his grandfather started during the Great Depression is based in Jamestown, N.Y.
Gauging rose supplies needed for Valentine's Day can be tricky, given the varieties available. “The analogy I use is, you know the produce business is tough because the peaches get spoiled. Imagine if there were 150 different colors of peaches.”
Kim Leonard is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5606 or firstname.lastname@example.org.