Valentine's Day ideas: Picking the right flowers

Fresh Tulips USA in Stevensburg, Va., ships 1 million hydroponically grown tulips each week -- an amount that doubles around Valentine's Day.

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Compiled by Ian Saleh
Washington Post Staff
Wednesday, February 9, 2011; 5:14 PM

Valentine's Day is around the corner and Brian Palmer has some tips on choosing the right flowers:

Imported flowers have come to dominate the U.S. market in the past 40 years, as entrepreneurs and scientists have found ways to make blooms survive intercontinental plane trips. In 1971, just 8 percent of the roses, carnations and chrysanthemums sold in the United States were imported. (These three flowers account for the majority of cut-flower imports.) By 2003, that number had grown to 91 percent, with most of those flowers coming from Colombia and Ecuador.

This shift from local to imported flowers is a mix of good and bad news for the environment. The bad news first: South American growers rely heavily on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. According to a study by the International Labor Rights Forum and the U.S. Labor Education in the Americas Project, 20 percent of the chemicals sprayed on Colombian flowers are illegal in the United States or Europe. They have contaminated the soil and caused severe health problems for many workers. There are certification programs for responsible growers, but it's often difficult to determine how any individual bunch of roses was raised.

On the other hand, flowers grown in equatorial zones and shipped to your local market probably use less total energy than the locally grown equivalent, despite spending five hours on an airplane. February isn't prime flower-harvesting season in most of the United States, and efficient growing conditions usually trump buyer-producer proximity.

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Adrian Higgins reported on how all those Valentine Day flowers are produced:

It probably helps to be Dutch to undertake an enterprise that involves the mass production of the tulip. It's in the blood: Greenhouse growers in the Netherlands raise 1.5 billion cut tulips a year, even if fewer of those blooms today are making it to the American marketplace.

With the rise of high-volume supermarket floral departments, Haakman and his business partners figured that by bringing Dutch methods and techniques to the mid-Atlantic, they could meet consumer demand for cheap and cheerful tulips while cutting out middlemen and the delays of shipping flowers from abroad.

The company ships about a million tulips a week to stores such as Whole Foods Market, Wegmans and Giant Food, in markets as far west as Dallas, north to Boston and south to Miami. This week the production more than doubles for an annual peak of tulips in three colors: red, white and pink. These are cupid's hues around St. Valentine's Day, and Haakman is counting on legions of swains choosing tulips over the pricier and more predictable bouquet of red roses. For plant geeks like myself, I should add that these varities are all Triumph tulips, by name Ile de France, Jumbo Pink and White Marvel.

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