Valentine’s Day approaches, bringing with it the requisite red and pink overload, heart-shaped silliness and sudden craving for roses (do NOT believe anyone who assures you that they don’t want a dozen right about now). Colombia is the biggest exporter of cut flowers to the US but Ecuador isn’t doing too bad either with US$166 million in cut flowers exported to the US in 2012. Many of those flowers are the Valentine’s Day roses you are being mercilessly pressured to buy or receive this February 14.
Here’s what we learned during a behind-the-scenes tour of a major rose producer on Ecuador’s “Avenue of the Volcanoes” sandwiched between three giants: Chimborazo Volcano (20,703 feet/6,310 meters), Cotopaxi Volcano (19,348 feet/5,900 meters) and Tungurahua Volcano (16,480 feet/5,023 meters). Those last two volcanoes, by the way, are currently erupting.
Inside Nevado Roses in Ecuador
On a normal day Nevado Roses ships 75,000 stems. The frantic build up to Valentine’s Day starts 65 days before February 14 during which time staff is tripled, plants are “pinched” to increase output and Nevado Roses ultimately manages to ship three times their usual number of daily blooms to meet demand. That’s 225,000 roses. PER DAY. And Nevado is just one of dozens of rose farms in Ecuador.
These specially-bred roses grown at Nevado come in white, red, yellow,hot pink, pale pink, almost green and combinations thereof and have names like Gigi, Red Intuition, Fragrant Delicious and Pink Intuition. Then there is the small room where white roses have their stems spliced and placed into tiny pots of dye to produce a weird, fakey technicolor “tinted” rose that’s not our cup of tea, but whatev.
Nevado Roses greenhouses in the sky
Nevado Roses, which has been family owned since it was created in 1965, produces blooms on more than 170 acres (70 hectares) which is covered in long greenhouses which protect and nurture thousands of rose bushes.
Nevado means snow and there’s plenty of that in view from the farm (on a clear day) as you look up to the flanks of the Chimborazo volcano behind the massive sprawl of greenhouses. The snowy peak of the volcano is at 20,703 feet (6,310 meters) and the roses themselves are grown at more than 9,042 feet (2,756 meters) above sea level.
That may seem way too high for growing roses but the Nevado operation is also very, very close to the equator where temperatures stay warm enough for growth (especially inside the greenhouses). The equatorial location has other benefits as well.
Exquisite roses on the equator
The sun in Ecuador is strong, constant for basically 12 hours a day and comes down in super straight rays nearly perpendicular to the earth. Solar panels, which are angled to catch slanted rays in most of the world, lie practically flat down here around the equator.
These unique sun conditions are said to produce more vibrant color, a larger flower head and some of the longest, straightest stems in the world, some reaching more than 40 inches (100 cm).
Average Nevado Roses stem lengthy is 15 inches (40 cm), but some buyers like them longer. The Russians, for example, are big buyers of Ecuadorian roses and they like their stems super tall, preferring stems that are 35 inches (89 cm) or longer. Yes, that’s a nearly three foot (one meter) long stem.
Stop and smell the controversy
Roses are not immune to politics. Since August of 2013 Ecuador pays nearly 7% duty on the roses it sends to the US after the current government of Ecuador backed out of a duty-free flowers deal with the US in protest over the Edward Snowden affair (Ecuador was one of the nations that offered Snowden asylum).
There are additional rose controversies too, mainly to do with chemical use and worker conditions as nicely laid out in this article about Ecuadorian rose production in Mother Jones magazine. At Nevado Roses they’re proud of their certifications from environmental orgs including the Rainforest Alliance and since 2006 workers at Nevado have had a medical facility on the farm offering free treatment.
For more reasons to think twice before ordering that bouquet, check out our post about the complicated environmental and border issues associated with the xate ferns that are often used as filler behind the flowers.
How to make your roses last
Though Nevado Roses sells their roses for about 50 cents per stem on the wholesale market you, no doubt, will pay much, much, much more. Here’s what Nevado Roses experts told us about how to make your roses last.
1. cut the stems neatly at a steep angle
2. put them in cold, clear, clean water and change the water frequently
3. add flower food – dumping that mystery packet that comes with many bouquets or can be purchased (cheaply) into the vase before adding water may add 5-6 days of life to your flowers
So, what flowers to Ecuadorian women want?
Not roses. A female Nevado Roses employee, one of more than 500 full-time employees on the farm, told me that in Ecuador women crave sunflowers and orchids, not roses.
We visted Nevado Roses during a day excursion that was part of our trip on Ecuador’s new Tren Crucero four day/three night trip through the country. Individual visitors can pre-arrange a guided tour of Nevado Roses.
Read more about travel in Ecuador