The power behind the UAE's Valentine's Day flowers

The first and last resort of the genuinely romantic, the forgetful, the guilty and the desperate, a gift of freshly cut flowers is as synonymous with Valentine’s Day as anonymous messages, hearts and the ubiquitous colour red. For many of us, the decision to invest in this most ephemeral of gifts will often be made […]

The first and last resort of the genuinely romantic, the forgetful, the guilty and the desperate, a gift of freshly cut flowers is as synonymous with Valentine’s Day as anonymous messages, hearts and the ubiquitous colour red.

For many of us, the decision to invest in this most ephemeral of gifts will often be made at the very last moment. To satisfy that impulse, wholesale flower dealers such as V S Kumar have to spend months second-guessing, negotiating and preparing for the most romantic day of the year.

“We have to plan almost five months in advance,” explains the 41-year-old, who recently marked his 20th year in wholesale floriculture with Gardenville, a subsidiary of the Dubai-based horticultural giant Al Lokrit. “We need to talk to our suppliers and growers to tell them our expected orders so that we can negotiate the price, the quality and the sizes, as well as the date of the flowers’ arrival.”

Importing plants and flowers from all over the world, including tight-budded tulips and greenhouse-grown amaryllis from the Netherlands, hand-picked roses from Africa and rainbow-coloured orchids, chrysanthemums and ranunculus from Japan, Kumar works out of a series of refrigerated warehouses on the southern edge of Dubai’s industrial district, Al Quoz.

“This year, there is even more demand for red flowers. Chinese New Year fell the week before [Valentine’s], so all the hotels wanted red flowers,” he says. “Last year, Valentine’s Day was on a Saturday, so most of the offices were closed, but this year it’s on a Sunday, the first day of the working week, so we expect to be even busier.”

To meet the expected demand across the UAE, Kumar’s 30-strong team of loaders, handlers, packers and delivery drivers help to import and export about 800,000 red roses in the week leading up to Valentine’s Day, a logistical challenge that requires all of Gardenville’s resources.

“We have the pulse of the market, and we know what does and doesn’t move. Seventy per cent of our clients want red roses, but we have to bring special roses for ­Valentine’s Day that are between 140 and 150 centimetres in height,” Kumar explains. “We don’t generally bring those in for our market, but they are for customers who want to give special Valentine’s flowers.”

Kumar is one of two buyers at Gardenville who place orders with buyers at the Aalsmeer international flower market near Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. A state-of-the-art exercise in global logistics, the largest covered market in the world trades about 20 million flowers daily and more than 12 billion annually, in the fourth largest building in the world.

The flowers, which may have been sourced from destinations as distant as the rose nurseries of Ethiopia or as close as the gas-heated glasshouses that glaze the Hook of Holland, arrive at Aalsmeer each night, are sorted, then sold at auction the following morning.

Sold flowers are then distributed immediately, and by late afternoon, all of that day’s flowers have been moved on, and the market is prepared for the following day’s trading. “The auctions open at 6am in Holland, and the buyers there put the flowers in their system by 7am or 8am, and we do our ordering by 11.30am or 12pm our time,” Kumar explains.

“The flowers are then packed the same day, the flight leaves at night, and the flowers arrive in Dubai the next day. Once the flowers arrive here, we rehydrate the roses, repack everything, and then send them to our clients,” he says. “We have six dedicated vehicles for Abu Dhabi, a similar number for Dubai, two for ­Fujairah, two for Sharjah and one for Ajman.”

To fulfil his Valentine’s orders, Kumar’s roses are sourced from growers across Africa, such as Joshua Flowers, a nursery with 5.2 hectares of land dedicated to rose-growing on the outskirts of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. Gathered in small bunches wrapped in bundles of cardboard, Kumar’s Ethiopian roses are a part of the Valentine’s Day consignments that Gardenville sends to one of its largest customers in Abu Dhabi, the Emirates Palace hotel.

The roses are accompanied by redwood-coloured cymbidium orchids, carnations in two different shades, carmine chrysanthemums with acid-green florets, and giant stems of liberty amaryllis, all of which will be used to transform the hotel’s scarlet Chinese New Year theme into something more sensual. “Before, I used to use all red roses, but now I add a touch of purple and different shades of red,” explains Elizabeth Docto, the hotel’s head florist.

With more than 33 years’ experience, Docto has worked at ­Emirates Palace for 10 years, and manages a team of nine people. Her day starts at 8am, when she checks the quality of the flowers that have been delivered and makes sure that all of her orders have arrived; she then oversees the design, arrangement and installation of the hotel’s 2,000 floral arrangements and special displays, each of which has to be refreshed or replenished every three to four days.

For arrangements that appear throughout the hotel, Docto creates a sample that the junior members of her team then copy exactly. “We just finished ­Chinese New Year last Friday, and now we have to move straight into ­Valentine’s Day,” she says.

To celebrate Valentine’s, ­Docto and her team have to produce complimentary arrangements for every female guest who will arrive at the hotel tomorrow and Sunday, arrangements for the hotel’s lobby and reception areas, its east and west wings, and each of its restaurants, as well as special heart-shaped arrangements made from red roses that are used to decorate the pillows of honeymoon suites.

Docto also has to order enough flowers to deal with the unexpected. “We never know who will order during the day,” she says. “Normally our guests just think about flowers, and then decide to order them, and we have to be ready for that. We don’t just sell to our guests in-house; we also sell to customers calling from outside as well.”

The centrepiece of this year’s Valentine’s display is a six-foot-tall heart arrangement, packed with roses, that takes four florists three hours to complete. “We’ll be working 12 or 13-hour days on the days before the 14th, because we have to have everything ready for Valentine’s Day,” Docto explains. “It’s really exciting, because we have to show that we can deliver. “

Emirates Palace usually receives daily deliveries of flowers, and would normally order about 5,000 roses each week, but at peak times, such as Valentine’s, the number of roses can triple. At these points, it’s not unusual for the hotel to require more than one delivery per day.

“If we have a last-minute VIP visit or a delegation, they have to come back in the afternoon or the evening so that we can prepare for their arrival,” Docto says.

“Working in a hotel is very challenging, because you have so many demands. As well as VIPs arriving at the last moment, there are also the guests, our special events and certain areas in the hotel that require special displays.”

Those areas include the hotel’s 16 Palace Suites, each of which is decorated with 35 arrangements that not only have to match the decor of the interiors, but that also have to be fragrance-free to avoid any risk of a guest suffering from an allergic reaction. To decorate every Palace Suite takes two days, so Docto keeps a full set of 35 arrangements permanently on-hand, just in case a suite is needed at short notice.

“Emirates Palace is unique in the sense that our guests do not plan for anything,” she explains. “They come, they order and we deliver. We try to make sure they are happy. That’s the main thing.”

The secret to Docto’s stamina and enthusiasm after 33 years lies in the excitement that surrounds special events such as Valentine’s and her undying love of flowers. “When Valentine’s Day comes I’m excited, not just because it is about love, but because we get to create displays in the hotel that only happen once a year,” she says.

“But the feeling is always the same when I come to work in the morning, knowing that I will be touching, cutting and making the flower arrangements. Once they are done, the joy is ­unexplainable.”

nleech@thenational.ae

Source: art & life

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