MY CRAVING FOR flowers started early. As a kid, when sweets were forbidden, I sucked the nectar from the stems of tiny coralillo in my aunt’s garden. I rubbed pollen off the trembling anthers of hibiscus to smear on my cheeks, emulating the makeup of my older teenage cousins as they clacked around in heels that were totally dissimilar to the soft, unthreatening soles of my childhood Mary Janes. Now, when I shop in a market, the first thing I grab is a bouquet of flowers, those strategically placed at store entrances to put me in a good mood, communicating that everything in the market is surely fresh, aromatic, and delicious. When food shopping, I know flowers aren’t the thing I need, but they are the thing I want.
Chances are those flowers came from Colombia. Aided by the abundant light that its proximity to the Equator provides, the country’s climate is perfect for growing flowers year-round. From the cool savannas right outside the capital city of Bogotá, to the constantly humid, summer-like weather of Medellín, Colombia supplies the United States with about 75% of its flowers, and 90% of flowers sold through supermarkets and grocery stores. After Holland, Colombia is the second-largest world exporter of fresh-cut flowers — last year, $1.4 billion worth. “Our main strength is the diversity of our flowers,” says Augusto Solano, president of Asocolflores, a trade organization working to strengthen Colombian floriculture within the framework of sustainable development and social responsibility. Solano promotes what he calls “healthy competition” among the growers, who work with 1,400 species. Colombia, the second most biodiverse country in the world, hosts about 10% of the world’s flora and fauna. This year, Valentine’s Day bouquets will feature Colombian roses, hydrangeas, stocks, snapdragons, carnations, lilies, and alstroemeria, among other varieties.
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For Solano, breeders are key to the innovation of new varieties without using modified genetics. “A rose breeder could start today with thousands of combinations, evaluating productivity, such as how long the flower lasts, if they travel well in the plane, if it’s resistant to diseases. And after five years, they choose two or three to make commercial.” Once new varieties have been created, intellectual property laws come in. Solano explains that “these are not free flowers. There are companies that own the variety. And if you want to grow that variety, you have to have a contract.” Patty Chen, chief operating officer of floral retailer and wholesaler FTD, describes it as “an entire greenhouse of rose varieties that haven’t hit the market yet — different colors of roses, with petals tipped in different colors or roses with extremely abundant petals.”
The flower industry has long been criticized for harsh working conditions and union busting, but Solano insists that Asocolflores is focused on people. “The people are key” to the whole enterprise, says Solano. “This is an industry that is labor intensive. We generate 150,000 jobs, all decent jobs. Sixty-five percent of the workers are women, most of them heads of household. And they can find very stable jobs here. They’ve been able to build a life, to buy a home, to educate their kids.” They also have housing and recreation programs, Solano tells me. During the pandemic, the cost of transportation doubled for the growers, but Asocolflores insisted on implementing strong protocols to protect its workers.
Flowers are the only agricultural product that moves with fashion.
Environmental considerations come into play too. In order to contain their carbon footprint, many Colombian farms now strive to meet sustainability goals through water and waste management. The Asocolflores team works to reduce the use of agrochemicals. They also promote the collection of rainwater (instead of using groundwater), and utilize beneficial insects instead of pesticides to eliminate crop-damaging pests. In addition, Asocolflores founded Florverde, a program that provides a certification framework for flowers and ornamentals by independent and third parties. FTD is also rolling out changes. “By March,” explains Chen, “our boxes will be fully recyclable or compostable and the flower food that usually comes in a little plastic sachet will be in a paper sachet.”
Flowers evoke myriad visceral responses — from the curl of a petal that reminds you of a lock of your lover’s hair to the scent that transports you back to a languorous beach vacation. They invite poetry. But those who work in the industry must also divine market trends and consumer tastes so that the right kinds of flowers show up at the right time. “Flowers are the only agricultural product that moves with fashion,” says Solano.
I always want to make sure someone’s going to smile when they open the box, or when they first look at the bouquet.
To determine the future, Andrea Ancel, director of design of FTD — which calls itself a modern floral collective —says she primarily uses WGSN, the world’s leader in consumer trend forecasting, because they think far ahead and understand the crossover between interiors and fashion. She explains: “We have to think more than a year ahead, which is why all of our trend forecasting and what we do so far out is so important. It allows us to be very focused and deliberate on what we’re asking our farms to grow for us to include in our products.”
Ancel’s job begins with color palettes, which she looks at by season. Once she has colors in mind, she starts to build-in elements of texture, fragrance, and floral varieties. Selecting flowers depending on how they’re going to be delivered to the recipient, she considers “the velvety soft petals of a rose versus the sort of the deeper, rougher texture that you would get out of a chrysanthemum. And then when you combine those two, you’re also looking at a difference of scale in the bloom size.” Ancel’s task is to then create something harmonious and striking. “I always want to make sure someone’s going to smile when they open the box, or when they first look at the bouquet,” she says. “I want to think about what’s impactful straight out of the box.”
Ancel finds inspiration from visiting museums. “As I walk through and look at artwork,” she says, “I look at how the artists combined colors.” She pays attention to “what feels very light and reflective and what feels deeper and moodier,” and tries to combine the two. Assessing trends in the culture at large can sometimes be overwhelming, but, she says, “I can get lost in a museum and fall in love with a color palette. It’s perfect.”
Talking to Ancel, I am reminded of one of my favorite events, Bouquets to Art, a literal version of these meditations. Put on every year by the de Young Museum in San Francisco, florists and visual artists interpret a work of art from the permanent collection with a floral arrangement. White and purple irises invoke the feeling of a Richard Diebenkorn landscape; pink and orange chrysanthemums complement the forms in Ruth Asawa’s sculpture. Many of the floral arrangements don’t mirror exact shapes or themes, yet the conversation between them is profound.
When you can’t be there in person, when you’re not able to share that hug in person or hold someone’s hand, you can send something that reminds you of why they’re so special.
Initially, the pandemic disrupted many global industries, and the Colombian flower trade was no exception. But while people were locked inside or unable to travel to celebrations and commemorations, they sent flowers to their loved ones, friends, and colleagues. I worked with a local florist to send a bouquet for a friend’s book launch, made up of flowers that matched her book cover. Early in the pandemic, when suiting up in a double mask and sunglasses to protect myself from airborne virus particles at the supermarket, those flowers placed near the entrance felt like a small thrill, a comfort at a time when I felt like my life was at risk. Thorns were no match for my surgical gloves. (Yes, I am that person.)
The unique logistical issues caused by pandemic shutdowns made Ancel and her colleagues work more closely with Colombian farms, despite not being able to go there in person. Ancel had samples shipped to her home and even turned her daughter’s bedroom into a cooler, stacking hundreds of arrangements wherever she could. She recalls fondly “the impact of sharing bouquets with all of my neighbors. I live in a high rise; we gave away hundreds of bouquets to neighbors, and you know, their friends and their friends would come by and pick up things. It has really made us rethink things. When you can’t be there in person, when you’re not able to share that hug in person or hold someone’s hand, you can send something that reminds you of why they’re so special.”
Colombian flowers are a mainstay for holidays year-round, from Valentine’s Day to Mother’s Day to Thanksgiving to just-because-I-was-thinking-of-you day. I think back to my own childhood. No matter the season, when my father stopped for a bouquet of roses, the flowers were meant to remind my mother that there was still beauty between them despite some questionable offense. He would pick up the flowers somewhere during his commute from the shoe factory where he worked in Staten Island to our apartment in Queens via ferry, then subway, then bus. He would show up with the bouquet shoved into a backpack along with his uniform, work shoes, and an empty thermos once filled with coffee. The flowers were a ceremonious show of affection: the gateway to a softening, an opening for reconciliation.
I think back to my first date, when I received a red rose encased in a plastic sheath (that made it easy to hide from my parents). When I got home, I nestled the rose under my coat until I could slip into my bedroom and press it into my heaviest book, a Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. It was a thin bloom, the dark red, almost brown of a rose halfway to dying. But it was perfect because it had been given to me by a boy I thought I loved.
On my morning walks I pass a mural by the artist Mona Caron, a so-called artivist who makes gigantic paintings of flowers and weeds along entire sides of buildings around the world, metaphors about resilience and resistance. Of her “Weeds” series, Caron says, “I like the idea of showing them growing over the city in hidden places, about to take over. This little thing can find the tiniest crack and push through rubber and glass and cement and steel — you still find these things growing back. So I decided to paint them big, just make heroic portraits out of them.”
I keep fresh flowers on my desk to remind me of my connection to nature and all the beauty in this world. Flowers now mean connection to others, but also self-care and the privilege to buy them whenever I want to. I can always choose myself.
Yalitza Ferreras Writer
Yalitza Ferreras is a writer based in California. She is a recent Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University, and her writing has appeared in Best American Short Stories, the San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere.
Jo Metson Scott Photographer
Jo Metson Scott captures individuals, communities, and social stories around the world with an empathy, sensitivity, and tenderness that shapes every shot. Working across portraiture, fashion, and documentary projects, the British image maker sees her work as an opportunity to step into others’ worlds. She is also the creative director of Pleasure Garden, an independent magazine that exists at the intersection of nature, storytelling, and escapism.