The majority of roses Americans give one another on Valentine’s Day, roughly 200 million in all, grow here, the savanna outside Bogota, summoned from the soil by 12 hours of natural sunlight, the 8,400-foot altitude and an abundance of cheap labor.
Thousands of acres of white-tarped greenhouses, some the size of several football fields, are crammed with seven-foot stems topped with rich red crowns. Many are pulled into warehouses by horses, chilled to sleep in refrigeration rooms, and then packed with other flowers onto planes — 1.1 million at a time — to be sold in the United States.
It’s peak season for a massive Colombian industry that shipped more than 4 billion flowers to the United States last year — or about a dozen for every U.S. resident.
The Colombian industry has bloomed thanks to a U.S. effort to disrupt cocaine trafficking, the expansion of free-trade agreements — and the relentless demand by American consumers for cheap roses.
The transformation demonstrates the barreling, often brutal, efficiency of globalization: In 27 years, market forces and decisions made in Washington have reshaped the rose business on two continents. The American flower industry has seen its production of roses drop roughly 95 percent, falling from 545 million to less than 30 million.
It’s just the kind of decline that President Trump has railed against. Trump, who recently took action against foreign sellers of solar panels and washing machines, is now considering tariffs on steel and aluminum as well as a withdrawal from the North American Free Trade Agreement, changes that would reach deep into the American economy. He has promised an unapologetic “America First” agenda that some U.S. flower growers hope could bring them back into the Valentine’s Day rush.
But the rose industry offers a striking reminder of why it is so hard to roll back the economic relationships between countries. Where it used to face horrific violence and corruption, Colombia has nurtured an industry that produces roses faster and cheaper than anywhere in the United States — and can even get them to many U.S. retailers faster than domestic growers.
And in the United States, corporate giants such as Walmart and its competitors have replaced florists as the top seller of roses, ordering flowers in huge masses for consumers who have little interest in paying for the cost of a domestically grown rose.
Nora Perez works with roses in the post-harvesting area of Flores de Serrezuela in Madrid, Colombia. Once they are boxed, the flowers are chilled in below-40-degree temperatures until they are sold in their final destination.
Roses are bred
Colombians don’t even celebrate Valentine’s Day, but among flower growers, the foreign holiday can account for close to 20 percent of annual revenue.
The volume of the rose trade is breathtaking. In the three weeks leading up to Feb. 14, 30 cargo jets make the trip from Colombia to Miami each day, with each plane toting more than a million flowers.
From Miami’s airport, the flowers are loaded into refrigerated trucks — 200 are needed each day — and from there many go to warehouses in South Florida, where they are repackaged, assembled into bouquets, and then shipped all over the country.