A Red Is a Red Is a Red

For florist Jay  Watkins, the variety of colors makes it easy to decorate with roses.
For florist Jay Watkins, the variety of colors makes it easy to decorate with roses. (By Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)
By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 8, 2007

Think of Jordan Amige's chilled warehouse in Silver Spring as a bottleneck for roses. Between now and Valentine's Day on Wednesday, tens of thousands of wrapped bunches will pass through on their way from the farms of Ecuador to the streets, supermarkets and florists of greater Washington.

And so his cooler within a cooler -- a large, bright, frigid cinder-block room -- becomes an ideal place to observe the changing world of flower-giving in this, the busiest time of year for florists, when a third of all cut-flower sales are made. It is a moment when men (by 3 to 1) are doing the buying and will shell out as much as $100 a dozen to impress their loved ones. What will they find this Valentine's Day? Peak prices, yes, but also roses that are more colorful and relaxed. If they don't see red.

Someone along the way decreed that the rose as a messenger of love must be crimson. The link between the blood-red rose and passion might have been made by the great Scots poet Robert Burns ("O, my Luve is like a red, red rose"). Or it might have come from marketers imposing color symbolism on the mass consciousness.

Sorry, Robbie, but I find cut red roses to be stiff and artificial. I have to believe that many women -- maybe most -- would much prefer roses that are more natural, more colorful and more unexpected than red, especially if they are arranged with other flora (other than baby's breath).

Judging by the florists' wraps at Amige's flower market, the people in the business believe that, too. In the cooler, rosebuds wait framed in their rectangular wraps, and a host of them form abstract blocks of color stacked on their sides in tall racks. Deep crimson roses reach peak numbers this month, but what is most striking about this floral depot is the number of roses that are not red. Some are solid orange, others weird and delightful blends of beige and cranberry. Others are lime green or creamy pink. Florists and their more savvy customers are asking for these roses by variety name, not just color.

A recent visit to Amige's market, Potomac Floral Wholesale, shows a kaleidoscope of rose color. There's Femma, with peach-colored petals tinged a sherbet orange; and Lipstick, soft yellow tinged a strong red; and Massage, which is creamy yellow. Jay Watkins, a florist and event planner with the Ociana Group in Northeast Washington who is shopping the warehouse, said the proliferation of varietally hued roses allows him to make arrangements that fit the color schemes of his clients' homes. He said he might take a sweetly hued rose and find a place for it amid lime green viburnum blooms or creamy mopheads of hydrangea. Or what about a lime green rose, such as Limbo?

Retail florist John Nicholson, of Company Flowers in Arlington, said the non-red and bi-color roses convey more sophistication than predictable red. "My guess is that we would sell more combination roses -- some red touches for instance, or orange or yellow -- than traditional red" this Valentine's Day, he said. "People want something that's uniquely theirs."

The two leading nations for cut-flower production are Colombia and Ecuador. In the early days, 25 years ago, farmers there were raising run-of-the-mill, generic red roses. If those blossoms had a name, nobody cared. Later, growers anticipated a more sophisticated market that would demand something more; hence the proliferation of non-red roses.

Market forces are also driving the demand for non-red varieties: An Ecuadoran farmer, who invests more than $100,000 an acre in planting chosen varieties, cannot survive by raising red roses alone and pegged to one day of the year. So the farmer stipulates in February that if wholesalers want red roses, they have to buy a like number of non-red roses. That same requirement, said Amige, is passed on to retailers.

Another trend seen in the marketplace is toward larger, looser flowers. Historically, the U.S. consumer has wanted tight buds -- not as tight as the Italians like, but tighter than other nationalities, said Liza Atwood, founder of an online bulk flower retailer named Fifty Flowers.

The view was that the younger the bud, the longer the life of the flower. Actually, however, the opposite is generally true: A bud harvested too young often will stall and wither sooner than a flower cut at a later stage.

"When you cut it open and send it then, it will last longer, but the perception of the market is an open rose is an old rose," said Roberto Nevado, a grower in Ecuador who is also raising, as a niche plant, six-foot long-stemmed roses for an online florist named Organic Bouquet.

In Silver Spring, Amige knows that and is selling his roses with open buds, a look favored in Russia. "If you get the rose like this, it will open fully," he said.

Watkins goes a step further. Unwrapping a bunch at the wholesale market, he takes the budded rose and blows violently into its center. That opens up the outer petals, and he then manipulates the rose to make it look fully open. His fingers prod between the whorls of petals, and soon a bud that was an inch and a half across is transformed into a fully opened three-inch rose. He may also pluck out two or three center petals to reveal the stamens, so that the bloom looks like an old garden rose. "This is my favorite thing to do with buds," he said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company