When we go to a grocery store, we see where the strawberries or grapes come from, as they are usually clearly labelled. As a culture, we’re becoming more aware of the origins of what we consume, whether it’s something we eat, wear, or slather on our bodies!

Have you ever stopped to think about the flowers we work with every day—where they were planted, how they grow, and what they’ve gone through to get to our design benches? Well, Petals, we really need to educate ourselves about our products, as consumers are wondering about their backstories and many are prepared to use their dollar power to dictate where we source our flowers. We’ve all had THAT bride who insists (for ethical and environmental reasons) on knowing where every little petal comes from…until, of course, there’s a bloom she “needs”—then she doesn’t care if it’s local or organic and we are to do “whatever necessary” (murder?) to get it in for her!

Neville enjoying an ecuadorian rose

As you know, I travel a bit for floral events, which has helped me appreciate how global an industry we’re in. Recently, I had the opportunity to attend Agriflor, a giant flower show in Quito, Ecuador, and to tour several flower farms while I was there.

First, a little about Ecuador: it’s far away and they speak mostly Spanish. Before you go, memorize the phrase, “dónde está el baño.” (You’ll thank me!) Be aware that you’re not in your own country and there might be criminals watching. I speak from experience, as I got mugged whilst there. (Don’t worry—they only hurt my feelings!) Also, this beautiful country is made up of volcanoes and mountains, so understand that the elevation can wreak havoc on your breathing. The food is good and there are lots of choices, so there’s no need to pack a jar of peanut butter in your luggage. This is a diverse and incredible country, one full of beauty, culture, history, and, of course, flowers!

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Each fall, Ecuador and Colombia alternate hosting a floral expo that shows off what is grown in South America. In 2016, it was Ecuador’s turn. Let me tell you: these folks know how to create floral displays! Imagine sitting at a bar with hundreds of roses displayed under the glass. I’ve been in this business for hundreds of years, it seems, and this was impressive. I spoke with many growers who were proud to show off their offerings. And let me say, there are a few new rose varieties that will knock you over! I especially enjoyed visiting with Joey Azout, who runs Alexandra Farms, and admiring his stunning garden roses. You know how a dog gets when he sees something dead and he desperately wants to roll around in it? Well, that was me at the Alexandra Farms booth. I felt a bit bad for Joey as he wanted to chat and I kept getting distracted by the floral beauty around me.

My farm visits were incredible experiences too, starting with the coach ride. It was fascinating watching the scenery switch from tropical plants to cacti to pine trees the farther up we went. There was just loads of natural beauty, including volcanoes, one of which is snow-capped. One word of advice: if you’re even a little afraid of heights, don’t pick a window seat—just sayin’. And, as previously mentioned, the altitude can cause breathing issues. Apparently, there’s a tea you can drink that helps, but I decided to embrace my shortness of breath as part of the total experience!

Neville in ecuadorian rose farm

One farm processes 75,000 roses every day. Yup, every day. That’s about 50 million roses a year, of which 3 to 5 million are tossed because their quality is sub-par! Imagine that, right? At another farm, I walked through 3 hectares of callas that were so stunning, my brain hurt. At farm after farm, I saw thousands of blooms. It was like flower porn! I even saw 8-foot-tall roses bound for Russia. (They must be compensating for something…)

It’s hard to wrap your head around all the work that goes on at the flower farms. From the time the flowers are cut to the time we get them in our shops, well over a week has passed! Look, I would love to explain in detail about how farmers cap rose buds to protect against the flower version of sunburn (blackened petals), use beneficial insects and such to prevent disease, or colour roses to make rainbow varieties, but I would have to write a whole book!

I’m tired and thankful for that experience—minus the mugging, of course—and look forward to a trip to Colombia next year! I might have to recruit a security guard to accompany me though.

Neville MacKay
Neville MacKay, CAFA, PFCI, WFC is the owner of My Mother's Bloomers in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and a design director with Smithers-Oasis North America. He designed flowers for the 1988 Winter Olympics, as well as a long list of celebrities including Glen Close, Sir Elton John, and members of the British Royal Family. MacKay appears regularly on Canadian TV and travels internationally giving presentations about the impact of flowers.

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