Updated: June 28, 2013 6:06AM
Hotels will sometimes set out flowers for special guests. But what almost never happens is for arriving guests to bring their own flowers along with them, such as the displays of red and white roses that graced the lobby of the Crowne Plaza Chicago Metro Hotel recently, part of a 2,000-stem shipment sent by an Ecuadoran delegation for its visit to Chicago.
A third of the roses sold in the United States come from Ecuador — betcha didn’t know that. The South American country’s 10,000-foot elevation, the volcanic ash in the soil, its 12 hours a day of equatorial sun, make roses there grow in such beauty and abundance. Or so they say.
“Our weather is unique,” said Eduardo Bravo, sales manager at Nevado Roses in Latacunga. “The altitude — the higher we go, the bigger our roses.”
Roses grow in such quantity that you can buy two dozen on the streets of Quito for $1; unsold roses get turned into fertilizer.
The trick is not growing them, but quickly getting them from where they cost pennies to where they cost dollars. The majority — 85 percent — of all flowers entering the United States fly into Miami and are trucked to the rest of the country. But trucking trims days off the already short life of a rose — about four weeks, if the stem is long, two or three for shorter stems, if they are kept properly.
To start to understand the rose business, you must first realize: You never really buy roses; you only rent them.
If you wonder why roses aren’t flown directly to Chicago, the short answer is: There isn’t anywhere cold at O’Hare to put them. A short wait on a hot runway will kill a rose.
That should change next year, according to plans that brought about a dozen flower growers and exporters from Ecuador, including its ambassador to the United States, Nathalie Cely, to tour a large, gray, unfinished building on the east side of the airport, future home of the O’Hare Perishable Cargo Center, basically a refrigerated warehouse where flowers and other goods will be taken off planes, inspected by the USDA — and fumigated if necessary — then loaded onto trucks.
At O’Hare, they were met by Adam Rod, from the Chicago Department of Aviation. He said Chicago now imports 1 percent of the flowers Miami does, but that will change.
“Miami is the historical gateway for perishable cargo into the United States . . . it’s a vestige of the 1950s and 1960s,” he said. “Today, in the modern jet era, that extra truck drive from Miami doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
He introduced the group to the partners behind the perishable center, Jim Richards and Shlomo Danieli, who pointed out that trucking is a little cheaper but a lot slower.
“There is a trade-off” said Danieli, who hopes to get City Council approval for the center next month. “A direct flight to Chicago from Quito adds two cents per stem for a three-day fresher product. You get fresher product for a little bit higher prices.”
Danieli thinks that will make a big difference — per capita flower consumption in Europe is four times that of the United States, he said, because the flowers they buy last longer. Americans tire of quick-dying flowers. “Of course they hate flowers,” he said.
There is just a need. “It cannot be the Midwest with 80 million population will not have a port of entry for perishables,” Danieli said.
The Ecuadorans seemed interested.
“Very impressive,” said Maite Jijares Pisano, coordinator of the floral section for Pro Ecuador, a trade promotion group.
But they also were skeptical — jets cost more, but the huge influx of roses into Miami can collapse prices too. They’d hate to see that in the Midwest. Ironically, the prospect of the center made them concerned both with raising and lowering prices, a glimpse at the complex, hall-of-mirrors world of selling flowers.
We haven’t even talked about consumers. Flower buyers only care about a few things. Price, of course. And stem lengths — Russians want long stems, for reasons mysterious. They care about color — some want only red, some anything but red. Surprisingly, only half the roses grown in Ecuador are red.
“The rose industry is like the fashion industry — we’re not selling roses, we’re selling varieties and colors,” said Maria Clara Correa, of the Kiara Collection. “The customer doesn’t call for a ‘red rose,’ he calls for a ‘Freedom Rose.’ The trend a few years ago was bi-color roses, now we have more solid color roses. Now we have incredible colors — grays, greens, sand-colored roses.”
Freedom was one of the roses in the Crowne Plaza lobby. It looks like a red rose. What makes it special? “It’s so popular because it has a nice name,” she said. “Freedom is a very important thing for the American market. It opens beautifully. And it lasts.”