Aalsmeer Flower Auction
Whether you get red roses, pink gerberas or yellow carnations this Valentine's Day, chances are they first passed through the Aalsmeer flower auction near Amsterdam - the biggest of its kind in the worldFeatured February 10 Words by Alex Mitchell
PHOTO © GETTY
It's before seven in the morning and I'm standing on a metal catwalk looking down on what looks like an explosion in a paint shop. Blocks of retina-burning oranges, yellows and reds dash below, held aloft by a battalion of forklifts that weave around each other at dizzying speed. The air is heavy with the whine of machinery and the vegetative tang of recently cut flowers. If you squint you can just about see, beyond the futuristic world of tiny ant-like people, trolleys and machines, the distant sides of the warehouse building. I feel like I've been smuggled into Darth Vader's Death Star.
Except these 13,000 workers aren't planning intergalactic domination, they're selling flowers. Rather a lot of them. With 21 million cut flowers and plants sold here every weekday, chances are this vast warehouse just outside Amsterdam is where your Valentine's roses will come from. Not to mention your spring tulips and the orchids you buy for your mother's birthday. In fact, it's impossible to see these palettes of blooms being shuttled around in the warehouse below us and not imagine where they could end up. Those oranges, reds and yellows are gerberas that might brighten up someone's desk in London tomorrow. Blousy mop-headed hydrangeas sail by, headed for elegant dining tables from Paris to New York. A palette of red and white carnations can't help but conjure hasty garage purchases by guilty husbands. And then, of course, there are the roses, destined to be presented across romantic dinner tables all over the world on Valentine's Day, the most important date in Aalsmeer's year, when the run-up sees sales double to a heady 40 million stems a day.
This is the Aalsmeer flower auction, the Wall Street of flowers and the biggest trade centre of flowers in the world. It is the size of Monaco and the second-largest complex of buildings after the Pentagon. Bicycles are provided just so the workers can get from one end to the other. Every day flights jet into nearby Schiphol Airport from Colombia, Ecuador, Israel, Kenya and Ethiopia packed with fresh blooms that are auctioned here. Then they are sent off again to 200 countries within Europe and further afield (10% travel as far as Japan and the US), destined for supermarkets, florists, train station stalls and finally, your table. Want to know why roses cost more than daffodils? It's all down to the people sitting before us with their hands on the bidding buttons.
For if it's a buzzing hive of industry in the warehouse, it's a different league in the centre's five auction rooms, which are vast, glass-paned boxes where early risers sit staring at an enormous, projected clock on the wall. Below, a convoy of bloom-laden trolleys snakes through the room, like a Saturday gameshow conveyor belt where the cuddly toy has been replaced by grape hyacinths. Inside the clock, numbers and coded letters flash up every few seconds and a hyperactive cursor whizzes around, seemingly at random. It makes about as much sense to the untrained observer as the EU constitution to a toddler. But though the mood seems calm, appearances are deceptive. When I ask our guide Natascha if the forklift drivers ever crash into each other, she laughs and says it's safer than the high-stress environment of the auction room. A closer look and the fingers of each bidder are fluttering over yellow and red buttons in front of them as rapidly as the wing beats of a bird.
It's the same twitchy focus you see with teenage boys playing computer games, only, if they slip up, they won't go down a level, they'll lose hundreds of thousands of euros. No wonder they look pale.
Further down the half-mile catwalk, we enter a hushed glass box where ladies tiptoe around gerberas with all the care of nurses tucking in their patients. This is the Orwellian-sounding Product Quality Knowledge Centre, where technicians find out just how long each batch of flowers will last before flopping over in the vase on your coffee table. Already these roses and gerberas have been put through oneto-four days of simulated lorry transport conditions. Now they sit in vases in an atmosphere carefully regulated to match that of the temperature and humidity of the average living room, with 12 hours of dark and 12 hours of light. It's so carefully simulated you almost expect them to knock them over now and then by mistake.
If that sounds impressive, there are even more startling developments back down the supply chain. Marcel Claessen, managing director of Aalsmeer, explains how flowers can now be cut in Ecuador one day and then "put in a coma" in a sealed container on a ship, transported for 30 days and still last for a week in a vase at the other end. Such advances are particularly exciting considering the environmental impact of air freight and the fact that the local growing area in Holland is shrinking, meaning even higher imports from far afield in the future. Kenya, Aalsmeer's largest import market, now grows 2,000 hectares of roses to Holland's 500 hectares. "Dutch growers are having a hard time," says Marcel. "The costs of energy and labour in South America and Africa are lower and the quality is getting better and better." But Dutch growers have useful skills up their sleeves. "The carbon footprint and water print is more important in growing now," says Marcel.
"We can use waste carbon dioxide from Shell in our greenhouses and reuse the heat from them in our domestic homes. By 2020 Holland will have a carbon-neutral greenhouse system."
It's an exciting claim. But then, it shouldn't be a surprise that Holland leads innovation in flower power - it's been doing it since the 17th century when its traders introduced the Western world to a love affair with tulips. In the "tulipomania" of the 1630s, a single tulip bulb cost the same as prime real estate.
Thankfully, these days you don't have to re-mortgage before entering a florist, but the industry will still enjoy a good month in February as Valentine's Day is celebrated on exactly the same date all over the world, and flower sales at Aalsmeer will double in the run-up. And the type of rose you'll give or be given? It all depends where you're from. "If you're Russian," says Marcel, "the moment you give the rose is the big thing. So they want the rose to be open when they give it and they prefer long stems. In France, Holland or England, it's important the blooms last for at least a week so they sell the flowers when they are still closed and with shorter stems so they fit in a vase." Wherever you are, though, if you're given a rose this Valentine's Day, it's most likely to be red. "My love is like a red, red rose," after all, not yellow with a pink blush.
Visit the auction Monday to Friday, 7am to 11am. Entry: €5 adults; €3 children. Tel: +31 297 392 185, www.floraholland.com
THE WORLD'S BEST-SELLING BLOOMS
Red for passion, pink for friendship, white for devotion. A half-open yellow rose means: "Do you still love me?" A bouquet of 50 shows your love knows no bounds. Don't place roses near a fruit bowl as this speeds up the ageing process.
Cheerful blooms native to Asia and north-eastern Europe. If you're French, Italian, Polish or Croatian, white "mums" represent grief. Give bronze if you want to say: "Let's just be friends."
Tulips were introduced to Western Europe from Turkey in the 17th century and in Holland especially they became a hugely expensive status symbol. Give red for passion, white for purity and yellow for unrequited love.
White lilies also represent purity. Widely given at funerals, they symbolise the soul's return to innocence after death.
"Ten years ago, no one was talking about orchids," says Aalsmeer's managing director Marcel Claessen. "Only grandmas had them. Now they're a fashion product." Give an orchid to tell someone they are refined and a beauty.
WHERE TO STAY IN AMSTERDAM
HOTEL CITY GARDEN
After an early-morning start at Aalsmeer, hit the boutiques of PC Hooftstraat and spend the money you've saved at this affordable hotel. From €82, book at www.hotels.easyJet.com
EDEN AMSTERDAM AMERICAN HOTEL
Stay at this stunning, landmark hotel and visit the famous flower market nearby to bulk-buy tulip bulbs. From €120, book at www.hotels.easyJet.com
This four-star boutique hotel is walking distance from all the museums, the buzz of Leidseplein and the famous Vondelpark gardens. From €149 book at www.hotels.easyJet.com