Bouquet-maker Maureen Tobin reaches across the table for a bundle of slender stems, embellished with a crown of white blooms.
“Let me have a whiff again,” Tobin said, gesturing toward her colleague.
“People come in here and say, ‘It smells amazing,'” said Larry Joseph, one of three bouquet-makers at Flowers by Cindy, a flower wholesale business in East Naples.
The team agrees, Larry’s favorite — the white stock flower — is to thank for their workplace’s staple scent. Before roses, gerberas and tulips make their way into the intricate arrangements and bouquets found in hotels and country clubs across Collier County, they have a long and arduous journey ahead of them.
Every year more flowers embark on this trip. Imports to the U.S. have increased by 36 percent in the past 10 years. Miami is the Ellis Island of flowers; over 80 percent of all flowers imported to the U.S. come through its port district. By the time the flowers arrive at their final destination, they have been traveling for days from countries all over the world.
Colombia dominates the North American flower market; over half of all flowers imported to the U.S. are grown in the South American country. But slowly other countries with equally fertile climates are seeking to move up the ranks. In recent years, Ecuador — second in line with 20 percent of U.S. imports — has increased its market share 1 percentage point at a time.
Many factors can influence the market share of certain countries. Jose Lloreda‘s family was well-established in Colombia‘s flower business but decided to venture into Costa Rica to diversify their assets.
“Colombia 12 years ago was a different country,” Llloreda said. Political turmoil led him to start farming tropical flowers in Costa Rica. “The reason we looked at Costa Rica is because they have such a long history of stability.”
But stability comes at a price.
“Costa Rica is one of the countries in Latin America that really cares about protecting its workers,” Lloreda pointed out.
In the flower business, labor costs are what determines the final price point. The delicate nature of flowers does not allow for high levels of automation.
“We wash every single leaf by hand,” Lloreda said.
Labor costs continue to add to the sticker price down the line until the flowers end up in the hands of consumers. Roses, the flowers which earned Colombia and Ecuador their large market shares, are the perfect example.
Depending on the flower, transportation can be challenging. Lloreda‘s company Orocosta specializes in tropical flowers with flamboyant names like Sexy Pink Hanging Heliconia. Living up to their extravagant names and appearance, tropical flowers are extremely sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity.
“If you keep tropicals under their natural conditions, you will have flowers that will go 10, 14 days, no problem,” Lloreda said.
Unfortunately, the 80 percent humidity and 90 degree temperatures preferred by these tropical divas is not necessarily the climate most humans feel comfortable in. Air conditioning and dry environments can cut the lifetime of tropical flowers in half.
“Maintaining consistent temperature and humidity levels in transit is another challenge. Containers provide a more stable environment than airplanes. But the problem with containers is they take too long,” Lloreda explained.
Most flowers imported to the U.S. enter the country through Miami International Airport. From there they are either distributed to wholesalers in Miami or trucked to wholesalers across the country.
“Most flowers in the U.S. are trucked,” Lloreda said.
Despite increasing imports, most of the flowers sold in the U.S. are domestically grown. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, domestic flower production grossed at $4.37 billion in 2015.
California is the largest floricultural producer among the 15 states surveyed by the USDA, followed by Florida. Both states produced roughly $1 billion of flowers in 2015. For wholesalers like Mark Gerstel, it’s the specialty flowers that make the effort worthwhile.
“Some countries are known for certain flowers,” Gerstel said. “We’ve been doing this for 30 years; we know which flowers work best.”