Roses shipped from far away bring their fragrant message of lovein bloom

February 12, 1993|By Daniel M. Amdur | Daniel M. Amdur,Daniel M. AmdurContributing Writer

Athena and Evelien; Sweet Sonia and Only Love; Gabriella and Sabrina; Aalsmeer Gold and Little Silver; Jack Frost and Jacaranda.

A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose, declared poet Gertrude Stein.

With more than 200 varieties, roses come in countless shapes, sizes and colors ranging from the most salacious scarlet to the purest white.

They can mean love, forgiveness, sorrow, respect, friendship or infidelity. And on Valentine's Day, when emotion weds tradition and thoughts of spring begin to bud, there is no other flower that captures the spirit of the occasion better than the rose.

During the first two weeks of February, hundreds of people either pick up the phone or make a pilgrimage to one of the many Baltimore flower emporiums to buy what the ancient Greek poet Sappho described as the queen of flowers.

But where do these icons of affection come from?

In the Baltimore area, more than 3 million roses will be bought and delivered -- way too many to be grown in even the largest of Maryland's many greenhouses.

Mostly, roses come from the Netherlands, California and South America and, when the order for a dozen roses is placed, the thorny work of getting a radiant, living rose into the hands of a happy valentine begins. From the time a rose is cut to when it sits on a refrigerated shelf in a flower store is usually about four days. Any longer, and the product will not last long enough to be sold.

In Bogota, Colombia, flowers of all kinds grow in numerous, sprawling flower farms.

Jardines de los Andes -- "Gardens of the Andes" -- is a typical flower farm in Bogota. In this year-round tropical climate, hundreds of workers tend the budding roses, carnations and chrysanthemums in open-air greenhouses spanning hundreds of acres.

In the morning, roses are cut, packed and priced according to stem length in preparation for shipment to the United States. By evening, the roses are already loaded onto a cargo plane bound for Miami.

According to William Armellini, owner of Armellini's, a flower distributor in Miami, an average of 10 cargo planes filled with flowers fly into the city from Colombia every day. The boxes are X-rayed for drugs and an agricultural inspection, and receive a customs release before finally settling into cold storage rooms.

"Thousands of people are grinding out roses so that the flowers can get to stores on time," says Mr. Armellini. "It's a very small window. We're relying on mother nature."

Even slight drops in temperature in Bogota can cause havoc in a market as delicate as the product it sells.

"This is such a sensitive market because we're waiting for the flowers to grow, literally," he says. "Flowers will stop growing if the sun doesn't come out for a small period."

Once the roses are in the cold storage of a Miami importer like Garden America, the sister company of Jardines de los Andes, the process of disseminating the flowers across the country begins.

"On any given day in Miami, you'll have 300 to 400 salesmen on the phone just selling flowers to the industry," says Mr. Armellini.

At this time of year, Armellini's will send out 1 million roses a day in up to 350 trucks across the country and into Canada.

By 3 a.m. on the third day after a rose has been cut, these roving gardens of Eden will be pulling into a flower wholesaler's warehouse, such as the mid-sized Massoni's in Arbutus.

In half of this huge, 12,000-square-foot building, towering racks of dried flowers and pottery vases sit waiting to be sold. However, it is on the other side of the room, in three large, walk-in refrigerators, where the live flowers find their temporary home.

"Valentine's Day is the single biggest flower holiday," says owner Mark Massoni, a thickset 40-year-old who looks more suited to lifting weights than tending to the care of these fragile petals. Valentine's Day accounts for 15 percent of the company's annual sales, says Mr. Massoni. This year he expects to sell about 750,000 roses by Sunday's end.

"Roses are by far the most popular flower this time of year," he says.

About 250 cases of flowers a day roll into the warehouse five days a week. Each case contains usually 40 bunches of flowers, and it is typical to find 500 roses or more in each case.

Once the roses are dropped off and unpacked, the "chain of life process" begins. Here, the flowers are put in water, and preservatives such as silver nitrate are added to keep the stems healthy before being refrigerated. Walking into these cool, metallic floral havens is an assault on the senses, a Technicolored prison where a faintly sweet odor hangs heavily in the air along with the steady drone of refrigerator fans.

After the bunches of flowers are prepared, trucks owned or hired by Massoni's will make more than 200 deliveries a day bearing their chilled cargo to florists all over Baltimore.

Despite the long hours and hard work involved, dealing with flowers every day does have its rewards, Mr. Massoni admits.

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