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Thursday, 14 February, 2002, 11:34 GMT
Love in a cold climate
By BBC News Online's Mary Hennock
British romantics will spend £22m ($31.5m) on flowers on Valentine's Day.
To satisfy our desire to shower each other with blooms at the end of winter, cut flowers are flown in from growers in Kenya, Israel, Ecuador, Colombia and India.
Most pass through giant auction halls in the Netherlands before being re-exported.
Florists say they've been forced to become more inventive as increasing numbers of retailers have opted to go big on Valentine's Day, with displays of chocolates, teddy bears and pens and other small gifts.
"The fact is that we're definitely competing in a much wider market now", said Martin Hudson, managing director of Flamingo UK, who supplies British supermarkets with flowers from Kenya.
At Earthworks, an upmarket florist in London's West End who's proprietor Jo Jarvis prides herself on the store's creativity, one satisfied customer picked out a bouquet of amaryllis and four foot stems of ornamental cabbage.
For Ms Jarvis and her co-owner Nina Sherson, Valentine's Day began weeks ago, with a meeting to review trends over the last seven years.
They ordered their flowers in January and hired extra staff and delivery vans and booked hotel rooms to give their team somewhere to shower and sleep during the final week of wrapping bouquets, often from shortly after midnight and till nine at night.
"People think we make a lot of money out of it but not when you look at what goes into it," she said, defending prices of £7.50 ($10.70) for a single red rose and £95 for a dozen.
At Earthworks, they began putting together tulip and orchid bouquets on Monday, followed by spring flowers and smaller roses on Tuesday, then finally on the eve of battle, the red roses.
Red roses remain by far the most popular single flower on Valentine's Day, when about 7 million stems are sold, according to the UK Flowers and Plants Association.
Roses have been associated with romance since the ancient Romans used them as wedding garlands.
The Romans even believed wearing roses could stop romantic revellers suffering from hangovers and often added the petals to wine.
Roses from Amsterdam
But they're less popular with florists than lovers.
"I would rather do no roses at all on Valentine's Day, because rose prices have risen already," said Ms Jarvis before ordering hers, a fortnight ahead of the big day. "Think about it, the Dutchmen, the growers will get whatever they can."
"The Dutchmen" is the industry term for the Dutch auctioneers and wholesalers who handle about 65% of the world's trade in cut flowers.
Auction rooms in the Netherlands have replaced Covent Garden market as the major source of supply, with UK florists now using the famous market mainly as an emergency top up.
"It's convenience more than anything. The deal they get with the Dutch importers guarantees quality and price," said Phil Carey, a spokesman for Interflora, which monitors standards.
Ms Jarvis' particular Dutchman is Pim Van Kleef, managing director of Metz & Van Kleef, who expects to ship 200,000 red roses for 14 February, just part of annual sales worth £24m.
In normal times his firm makes twice weekly deliveries to Britain, so 14 February simply means a few more trucks.
"We're not looking for massive profit from Valentine's Day," he said. Getting it right on 14 February means "we're friends with this customer for the rest of the year".
Cooled trucks and planes bring the flowers into Britain from one of the three major Dutch auctions, where plants are wheeled round on huge trolleys as a clock counts down the price per stem until a buyer decides the price suits them and stops the clock.
UK buys more flowers
The Aalsmeer auction is busy with about 10,000 people a day. It directly employs just under 2,000 of them while the rest work for member wholesalers.
Since the plants must be kept cool, "we give our people warm jackets," said Aalsmeer spokeswoman Winny Paauw.
Aalsmeer is the second of the Netherlands' big three auction houses for cut flowers, an industry which brought in 2% of the country's export earnings, or about 4.5bn euros ($3.9bn; £2.75bn) last year.
Sales to Britain were a growing part of that, worth 650m euros last year, up 10% on 585m euros the year before.
The increase came from British women treating themselves to luxuries. Although men buy 90% of flowers on Valentine's Day, women must fend for themselves for the rest of the year and buy three of every five flowers sold in the UK.
Supermarkets have helped to boost overall flower sales and their operations are slick, with many flying in flowers direct from growers in Kenya.
Flamingo UK, for instance, supplies Tescos, Sainsburys, Waitrose and others, with ready made bouquets, wrapped, priced, bar-coded and ready for sale straight off the plane from Kenya.
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