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Flowers from Colombia

by Robert-James Collingridge on May 26th

The chances are that if you have been to a wedding in the last 40 years and worn a traditional carnation buttonhole, it will have been grown in Colombia.

Unfortunately flower growing is not the first thing that springs to mind when Colombia is mentioned. That, of course, is drugs, most especially cocaine, which is derived from the leaves of the coca plant. Colombia is a vast country, stretching from the shores of the Caribbean to the dizzy heights of the plateau surrounding Bogotá, it’s capital, at some 8,000 feet high. It is also on the Equator, which means it is very hot by the coast, but with a mild climate around Bogotá, and being on the Equator, most importantly, the daylight length is almost the same all year round, with very strong light intensity. All of which go to make it a very good environment for growing flowers, or in fact, any kind of horticulture.

At that altitude the air is already thin, and visitors can take some time to become accustomed to the feeling of desperation of not being able to fill one’s lungs. This is of course the origin of cocaine, as the natives found that by chewing the leaf of the coca plant it gave them some relief from the altitude sickness.
Mankind, being what it is, applied its warped ingenuity to change the humble coca leaf into a multi million pound addiction.

Flowers required more thought, as they have to be cultivated, and protected from the elements. But with the favourable climate it is not necessary to apply the fossil fuel input that is required to produce crops such as in Holland. The growing houses are mainly a wooden (eucalyptus) structure, covered in plastic. The houses are designed so that the rainwater is diverted into holding reservoirs for use in watering the plants. It is necessary to have an irrigation system for this, but after that, the flowers grow naturally.

This makes the timing of flower production for the most lucrative times of the year, like Christmas, Valentines Day and Mother’s Day difficult as these are the major times for flower production and delivery. Valentine’s Day is probably the most important because of the worldwide demand for this day for lovers who demand red flowers, especially roses. Roses can be cut back (or pruned) depending on the variety about 6 week’s before they are cropped to help nature produce the “flush” at the right time for the market for 14th February. Because the houses are unheated, the fingers of the growers get gnawed to the bone in the approach to Valentines (and indeed Mother’s Day) in case the weather does play an unwelcome part. The weather cycle on the Equator is not quite so consistent as the daylight length and unfortunately frosts and cold weather can wreak havoc with the production for Christmas and Valentines days especially.

The main crops around Bogotá are carnations, spray carnations, Alstroemeria, but by far the biggest crop is roses. After that there is a myriad of other flower varieties grown like hypericum, solidago, September flower (michaelmas daisy to you and I) chrysanthemums,(both spray and single bloom) and agapanthus, as well as gypsophila, latifolia and statice. There are also productions of foliage, like leather leaf, rumora fern, tree fern and eucalyptus.

In the tropical coastal area the productions are for exotic tropical flowers like heliconia, strelitzia and psittacorum with foliage to match. In the “middling areas” you can find production of cymbidium orchids.

Despite the fact that your carnation buttonhole will have Colombia “written” through it, it’s a surprising fact that 85-90% of flower production goes to the United States.

This is because Miami airport is only two and a half hours away. Europe is eleven to thirteen hours. A lot can happen in that time, so care has to be taken with European imports to make sure that they arrive in the best possible condition. They usually do.

Flower deliveries for the major days like Valentines, Christmas and Mother’s day put a big pressure on the infrastructure of Bogotá airport and the airlines who carry the flowers to both US and European destinations. At these times there are special charters organized to make sure the flower deliveries get to their destinations on time and in the best condition to give end customer satisfaction.

There are two major controversies with Colombian flower production. The first is the employment situation and conditions of the farm workers. Much has been made of their plight by such charities as Christian Aid and others. There are bad employers in all industries, and while it is impossible to protect all workers in all countries, whatever the type of business, the flower business in Colombia has improved its industrial relations and conditions, although, like most ongoing problems, not to everybody’s satisfaction. The second is the use of chemicals, and this also relates to worker treatment as well. Now, most, if not all workers get the necessary protection while applying the chemicals, and the owners have introduced codes of conduct, for themselves, their employees and their customers.

The most important scheme is the Florverde scheme, founded in 1997 by prominent flower growers, members of Asocoflores, the professional growers body in Colombia, and controlled by third party invigilators, who inspect the members’ farms for adherence to the standards of worker health and employment rights, lawful use of insecticides, and good business practice.

This scheme is accepted by most, if not all, major importers, wholesalers and retailers worldwide as a benchmark of social and ethical responsibility.

The flower industry in Colombia has grown incredibly since its beginnings in 1966. It was certainly helped by the world wide oil crisis in the early 1970´s which killed the UK production and a big part of the European too. The Mediterranean countries survived in carnation production, which like Colombia does not need artificial heat, until the 1990’s, but then the demand for quality again turned the tide of favour towards Colombia. The main Colombian “savannah” or growing area, is on the plateau around Bogotá, and has a fairly constant year round temperature, although colder weather including frosts can be experienced around Christmas and Valentine’s Day periods. European production, outside the controlled environment, has to depend on more varied temperature changes between winter and summer, production being difficult in both extremes.

Colombian rose production has in its turn suffered from the huge growth in production from Africa, notably Kenya. However geographical advantage has helped it to maintain its dominance of the US market, despite protective “anti dumping” legislation the US has introduced over the years which have sharply increased customs duty levies on imports from third world countries, whether Colombia, Kenya or elsewhere.

Colombian flower production is a vital part of its economic life, employing vast numbers of staff directly and indirectly in a country which suffers badly from unemployment and social injustice. The carbon footprint of the flights to the US or Europe are negligible when compared to the carbon footprint of producing these items in Europe. The social benefit also and as an aid to combat illegal drug production and refinement.

And a Colombian carnation or spray carnation is still considered the ultimate in quality, beauty and longevity in the flower world.

Tags: Bogotá, Colombia, carnation, alstroemeria, chrysanthemums, rose, import

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