A worker carries brightly colored hydrangeas into a warehouse at the Flores del Este flower farm. With 57 acres (23 hectares) under production, Flores del Este is Colombia’s largest single-site hydrangea farm. (Andria Hautamaki)

The sun rises over La Ceja, Colombia, a town of approximately 55,000 residents where the main source of employment is the cut-flower industry. (Andria Hautamaki)

When Juan Manuel Uribe Palacio lost his cattle from Colombia’s armed conflict, he planted flowers. Fifteen years later, the co-owner of Colombian hydrangea farm American Flowers now employs 82, instead of just two, employees. Although Uribe misses working with his livestock, he is grateful that amid waves of political and military unrest, this flower has created new jobs and allowed his family to continue working in agriculture.

Hydrangeas are an ornamental flower with an iconic “snowball”-shaped head of blooms; they are the second-most-planted flower in Colombia, trailing only the rose. In 2019, according to the Association of Colombian Flower Exporters (Asocolflores), 81 percent of the country’s hydrangeas were exported to the United States. The next most significant destinations for Colombian hydrangeas were Canada, the Netherlands, Japan and Korea.

In North America, hydrangeas are commonly used in weddings and to celebrate Mother’s Day. In Asia, the hydrangea is a popular accompaniment to religious ceremonies.

Hydrangea farmer Mónica Gutiérrez Rodríguez says, “The rose is the flower of conquest, but the hydrangea is a flower that symbolizes humility, spirituality and family.”

Unlike other flowers such as carnations, chrysanthemums or roses — which require costly start-up costs, such as a greenhouse — the hydrangea will bloom outside year-round. Hydrangeas are harvested by hand and can even be grown on mountainous plots of land. With just 1.2 acres (0.5 hectares), a well-managed family farm can benefit from Colombia’s highly competitive cut-flower industry.

Due to favorable climatic and soil conditions, 99 percent of Colombian hydrangeas are grown in the northwestern department of Antioquia. Much has changed since the times when Antioquia was known as one of the most dangerous regions of the country; famed drug lord Pablo Escobar was based in regional capital Medellín.

According to Magda Milena Palacio, lead agronomist for the Colombian Institute of Agriculture’s Antioquia ornamental flowers project, “the hydrangea gave another possibility after the conflict. You can’t eat a hydrangea,” she says, and unlike livestock, “it is more difficult to steal.”

The town of La Ceja, just 25 miles from Medellín, was once a dangerous area for even agronomists to pass through while making routine visits to flower farms. Now, the region is calm.

“The hydrangea gave producers the possibility to set down their arms and offered the agricultural sector a new chance to come to life,” Palacio says. “The hydrangea helped generate prosperity and hope. The hydrangea gives life to Antioquia.”

“The Colombian flower sector was perhaps the first sector in Colombia that was affected by the coronavirus crisis,” says Augusto Solano, executive president of Asocolflores. As soon as the virus appeared in China, and progressed across Europe, country after country began to cancel orders.

The first action Asocolflores took was to coordinate with local authorities and enact strict safety and hygiene measures along the entire supply chain, from the fields to the factories to international transport. While the cancellation of events and weddings has been a significant cause of decreased demand for cut flowers, the strong link between the United States and Colombian floriculture has been a positive connection for the industry. Solano explains: “Fortunately, supermarkets in the United States have maintained permanent activity; not high, but [sales] have been active.”

While this is a difficult time for flower producers, Solano reminds consumers that “flowers help combat stress” and, as homes have become home offices, flowers “are a source of calm, attract energy and bring well-being.” And, he says, supporting floriculture supports workers. The Colombian cut-flower industry, including hydrangeas, generates work for 150,000 people in Colombia, the majority of whom are women who are the head of the household.

This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation as part of its Adelante Latin American Reporting Initiative.

A worker harvests hydrangeas at the American Flowers horticulture facility near Guarne. The black netting blocks excessive sun and protects the hydrangea’s fine blooms from browning on the edges. The nets also help growers maintain uniform flower quality to meet export market standards. (Andria Hautamaki)

Cut flowers destined for Miami are packed into crates and loaded onto a cargo plane at Medellín’s José María Córdova International Airport. (Andria Hautamaki)

Buckets of white hydrangeas are queued up for color application in a paint booth. Depending on consumer preference, hydrangeas can be spray-painted in colors ranging from metallic purple to burgundy, teal or aqua. (Andria Hautamaki)

Hydrangeas are prepared for shipment by securing a small bag of nutrient-rich water to the bottom of every stem. This water hydrates the hydrangea and accompanies the flower on its entire journey from the farm to the hands of the consumer. (Andria Hautamaki)

At Flores del Este, floriculture workers participate in daily group exercise sessions that promote employee health and prevent repetitive motion injury. Flores del Este values the health of the land and its employees, and maintains the highly regarded “Florverde” and “Rainforest Alliance” certifications for sustainably grown flowers. (Andria Hautamaki)

Colorful backpacks hang on the wall in American Flowers. Once a barn for livestock, the building was converted to floriculture after a paramilitary group stole the cattle. (Andria Hautamaki)

At midscale hydrangea farm American Flowers, workers take turns to break for lunch. (Andria Hautamaki)

Guillermo Castrillón, 52, and his aunt Nohemy Castrillón, 77, grow hydrangeas on their 1.2-acre (0.5-hectare) farm outside of San Vicente Ferrer. The Castrillón family is one of 25 small-scale hydrangea producers that contribute to the flower cooperative Nueva Alianza, or “New Alliance.” (Andria Hautamaki)

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