What a prick!

The not-so-pretty secrets of the pretty-flower business.
By VALERIE VANDE PANNE  |  February 12, 2010

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PETAL PUSHERS: Roses sold in Boston — like these in a cooler at Boston Wholesale Flowers — generally originate from South America, where they are painstakingly hand-cut by the millions.

Saint Valentine, it is said, would pick the violets that grew outside his prison cell window. The third-century martyr would write little notes of love on the violets' leaves with ink that he made from the flowers' petals. He would then give the messages to a dove, who would dutifully deliver them to his friends and loved ones.

Saint Valentine was ultimately beaten and beheaded.

Though he met a morbid end, some 1750 years later the tradition attributed to him lives on. For workers in the global floral industry, however, St. Valentine's Day can be almost as rough on them as it was for him.

The truth is that the flower business has a lot of hidden secrets. Not reprehensibly hidden, along the lines of, say, the meat industry, but for those who work furiously preparing for sale the prize gifts of this holiday of love, the conditions for making this a romantic day for you and your significant other are surprisingly thorny.

In your vase!
From the time of Valentine's death up through the 1950s, St. V's traditions were upheld in the popularity of hand-held bouquets of cut-violet nosegays. Back then, the purple of the violets was thought to represent passion. But by the 1960s, the tradition of giving violets on Valentine's Day was replaced with giving the longer-lasting and easier-to-cultivate rose.

That tradition has turned into a multi-billion-dollar enterprise — $422 million in wholesale, domestically produced cut flowers alone. And, according to Jennifer Sparks, vice-president of marketing at the Society of American Florists, 40 percent of the industry's annual cut-flower holiday revenue is made on just sales for Valentine's Day.

In 2009, says Sparks, 187 million roses were readied for sale solely for Valentine's. Here in Boston, according to Steve Zedros, manager of Brattle Square Florist, his shop will sell about 10,000 roses on an average Valentine's Day, exceeding any other business day of the year, multiple times over. At Boston Wholesale Flowers in the South End, they'll move more than 100,000 roses to retailers in the day prior to V-Day.

If, for any reason, there are outside factors that hurt the two-day Valentine's flower blitz, entire operations are at risk. With everything so heavily concentrated on one 48-hour period, that's a lot of flowers to prepare — not by machine, but by hand, in less-than-ideal conditions.

Behind the scenes
Roses don't just magically appear beautiful and ready for sale. It takes a lot of work and dozens of people handling each flower to make them the desirable tokens that they are.

It all starts in South America. Roses for sale in Boston usually arrive after a 48-hour cycle, which begins when they are cut in the early morning in Colombia or Ecuador. That starts the clock ticking — the flowers (which technically begin to die the minute they are cut) won't drink water again until they reach their destination in the US, so there is enormous pressure to move them as quickly as possible.

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