Any florist will recognise the look of furtive shame, the shifty hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to buy flowers. Some of them try to make it easier for you. I used to go to a splendid florist in Ealing who talked to me about rugby for no less than five minutes each visit. But most florists are more interested in flowers than people, and let it show.
For some reason, you’re never allowed to write the card yourself. You have to dictate it, endearments and private jokes and all, while a couple of women who remind you of your mother lurk in the background. My colleague Rory Sutherland believes that this is the point, that buying flowers is something men don’t like doing, so it is a mild human sacrifice which signals intent, a commitment device.
This would also explain why flowers are expensive — signalling is ineffective unless it is costly — especially around St Valentine’s Day. But much as I dislike florists, I am not going to criticise them for profiteering this week. It is true that roses are cheaper on 15 February than the day before — asking your wife to wait 24 hours for her bouquet sends a very powerful signal indeed — but that is largely accounted for by florists trying to offload excess stock rather than price gouging the day before.
In fact, it is not unusual for flower shops to lose money on Valentine’s Day. This may sound as improbable as bookies losing money on Grand National weekend, but as the editor of The Florist magazine, Caroline Marshall-Foster, explains: ‘The price of roses depends on global supply and demand. But in reality, a lot of people who are selling red roses are absorbing the uplift themselves. Your average florist hates Valentine’s Day. We have to deliver every single bouquet at the same time. Physically it’s an incredibly demanding day. Roses are a bitch.’
The supply of roses for Valentine’s Day is truly global, not least because they are out of season in England. Most roses come from Holland, with the rest mainly from Kenya (31 per cent) and Colombia (5 per cent). Flying roses such distances may not seem environmentally sustainable, but air miles are not everything: roses from the Netherlands produce up to six times as much carbon dioxide as those from Kenya, because the power needed to heat greenhouses in a temperate climate causes far more carbon emissions than flying. In any event, outside of peak periods, flowers are usually flown as belly filler on commercial passenger airlines.
Although the Dutch market share has been falling for the past decade, the majority of British imports still come through their flower auctions. Royal FloraHolland’s vast Aalsmeer auction house, which is the fourth largest building in the world, sells more than 20 million flowers a day, from 60 different countries. Long lines of carts, packed with buckets of flowers, are pulled by electric tractor units through a huge warehouse. It’s more like a hangar on the Death Star than a scene from My Fair Lady.
Royal FloraHolland is owned by the growers, and acts on their behalf. Its Rose Excess Policy, which was tightened just in time for Valentine’s Day, ensures that growers who supply too much (‘dumping’) have the excess removed from auction. I suggest to Michel van Schie, from Royal Flora-Holland, that this sounds very much like restricting supply to keep prices high, but he demurs: ‘I don’t think that’s the case. We sell 3.2 billion roses a year. It is important for us — for the growers — that the market is not affected by mass production, which will cause lower prices. It makes no sense to produce as many roses as possible if quality is not that high. That will disturb the market, and is not in the interest of the growers, or the buyers. Or the consumer.’
Like most people in the industry, Michel is still worried about the possibility of a no-deal Brexit: there is no margin for delay when flowers lose 15 per cent of their value for every extra day spent travelling. But rose exporters like Kenya are now talking about exporting directly to the UK. Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta Airport has a dedicated flower terminal and Kenya already supplies many of our supermarkets. While the infrastructure is not as developed as for the Nairobi–Amsterdam route, it is improving; Kenya now exports more flowers directly than via auction. Other countries are hoping that Britain will cut EU tariffs on their roses. India, which is the world’s largest producer of cut roses, is currently subject to EU tariffs of 8.5 per cent, and consequently supplies less than 2 per cent of the UK’s roses.
Free trade in the global flower industry will not just benefit British men on Valentine’s Day through lower prices. Take Colombia, for years blighted by the cocaine cartels. The Colombian government tried eradicating the coca crop by aerial spraying with the herbicide glyphosate; this was banned by the Colombian courts, but not before Colombian farmers had bred glyphosate–tolerant coca. So even if President Duque succeeds in overturning the ban, he may just be giving the cartels a free weedkilling service.
A far more effective measure was that the US Congress dropped all tariffs on cut flowers from Colombia. The high altitudes and equatorial climate which made Colombia perfect for coca were also ideal conditions for growing roses, and trade blossomed. Last year, Colombia shipped four billion flowers to the USA, a dozen for every US resident. I rather like the swords-into-ploughshares idea of narcos switching to roses. I’d shop at Escobar Blooms and Floral Tributes.
A spokeswoman for Florverde, a trade organisation for the Colombian flower industry, snippily insists though that they are signed up to the Floriculture Sustainability Initiative, which requires recognition of labour rights as well as meeting environmental standards. (She also points out that Dutch growers only agreed to adopt the FSI at the end of last year, and still haven’t set a date for its full implementation.) If there are dodgy cartels in the flower industry, they’re not in Colombia.
My wife is still expecting a bunch of flowers, so I’m readying myself to face the florist. I have already written a card, to place inside a bunch of Colombian roses. Like many Spectator readers, I can be quite romantic — about global free trade.