Valentines Day Begins at the Dutch Flower Auctions

Flower staging at Aalsmeer FloraHolland in Amsterdam

Today is Valentines Day, the annual festival of romantic love when many of us will be sending flowers. And even though we’ll be buying them locally, most of the blooms will have only just arrived from abroad. Ever wonder how flowers cut fresh in Europe, Africa and Israel can wind up for sale in America the very next day? The answer lies in the wonders of the Dutch Flower Auction.

A TRADING PLATFORM BUILT FOR SPEED

Over the past century, the Dutch have perfected a trading platform that can rapidly move millions of cut flowers around the world, making what until recently seemed impossible – delivery to North America within 24-hours from overseas.
How have they done this? By creating supply chains built for speed to accommodate flowers’ perishability and by establishing central distribution points for trade. The Dutch flower auction eliminates the middleman so buyers and sellers can deal with each other directly.

shutterstock_240912793The story begins with the arrival each day of millions of flowers to FloraHolland, a superpower in the floricultural world. The company runs six auction houses throughout the Netherlands and accounts for 90 percent of the Dutch floral trade. According to the latest statistics, in 2015 the Netherlands ranked first in the world in total flower bouquet exports by country, accounting for roughly 40 % of total flower bouquet exports worldwide.

With daily sales of well over 20 million plants and flowers, FloraHolland’s auction houses together comprise the largest flower auction in the world. In addition to the Netherlands (which is itself a major producer of cut flowers), more than 10 countries, including Europe, Ecuador, Colombia, Israel, Ethiopia and Kenya all use the Dutch auction as a gateway to distributing their plants and flowers to other parts of the world.

HOW THEY DO IT

When your business is moving millions of cut flowers daily, keeping the product fresh is the primary concern. To meet the challenge, the Dutch have created lightening-fast logistics. The whole process begins with a collaborative effort undertaken by Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, ground shipping companies and the Dutch government.

Workers moving flowers on trolleys at Aalsmeer Auction

Workers loading trolleys at Aalsmeer Auction House

Nicknamed Hub Ways, the approach works to improve traffic flow both to and from the airport and between the six FloraHolland auction sites. It’s a serious business. When deemed necessary, Hub Ways has even gone so far as to widen country roads just to make the flowers’ delivery more efficient.

The largest and most famous of the six Dutch flower auctions is the Aalsmeer Flower Auction. Often referred to as ‘the New York Stock Exchange for Flowers’ it occupies a massive building measuring an astonishing 10.6 million square feet (243 acres, or roughly two football fields). It is the largest flower trade center in the world.

Photo credit: www.hollandfoto.net / Shutterstock, Inc.

On a busy day, the Aalsmeer Flower Auction Hall sells millions of cut flowers to around 2,800 wholesalers and exporters. The buyers arrive at 6 am (midnight EDT) in the morning to bid.

RACING AGAINST THE CLOCK

While the supply chain makes sure the flowers arrive quickly, the Dutch Auction Method speeds the transactions at the points of sale. To accommodate their products’ perishability, Dutch flower auctions run on a system that is the flip side of traditional auctions (in which bidders push prices up from below.)  Also known as clock auctions, the unusual format is designed to ensure the highest transaction speed.

FloraHolland auction room, FloraHolland.com

FloraHolland auction room, FloraHolland.com

These days there is no longer an actual clock, but instead a digital circle operated individually by an auctioneer.  Buyers connect to the clock of their choice by means of a headset. All bidding is done electronically.

Dutch auction clock/ Click here to see how it works

The auction begins with the auctioneer setting a high price on the ‘clock.’ The price is then rapidly lowered by increments as indicated by a moving red dot on the circle. The first buyer to press the button and stop the clock is the highest bidder. The whole process can take under five seconds.

Flowers ready for auction

Adrienne Lansbergen, spokeswoman for Bloemenveiling Aalsmeeran, describes the process this way:

“It is really stressful. If you wait too long, as the flowers are passing by, they may be bought by your competitor. If you push the button too quickly, you may pay too high a price.”

Clearly speed is the king of the auction.

Once the transactions are made, the flowers are electronically labeled and placed in buckets, then hurried away on electric carts to the distribution center. Here, employees in mini electric trucks pull the buckets of flowers from the rail and redistribute them to new trolleys. Then the flowers proceed onwards to their new owners’ processing areas.

Flowers heading to the distribution hall at Aalsmeer

Depending on the species and where they are going, the flowers are assigned different packaging to keep them fresh as they travel.  This may include insulated cardboard boxes (designed for durability), ice packs to provide cooling, and/or flower mats, which absorb humidity and prevent mildew growth. Finally, the flowers are sped by truck back to Schiphol airport, where they are quickly loaded back onto planes for delivery overnight.

FloraHolland estimates that around Valentines Day, they trade over 300 million flowers. Of these, roses, tulips and chrysanthemums are the three top selling blooms. Nowadays, most of the roses come from Kenya. Such a long race to get here — something  to think about when arranging your Valentine’s Day blooms in the vase this year.

 

Vietnamese Tet: The Top Lucky Plants And Flowers

Apricot blossoms flowering in southern Vietnam

Falling on the same day as the Chinese New Year, Vietnamese Tet is like Thanksgiving and Christmas rolled into one. It’s a time when businesses and schools close up shop and people return home to their families to celebrate. During this festive period, Vietnamese decorate their businesses and houses with colorful symbols steeped in centuries of tradition. And it all starts with three lucky plants and flowers.

Spring comes very early

Tet is the most important celebration in Vietnamese culture. Based on the lunar calendar, it marks the arrival of spring. This usually falls somewhere in January or February.

Spring in February you say? Well as we discovered after a month here in January, there is very little variation between the seasons. That’s because Vietnam has a tropical ‘monsoon’ climate. Being near the equator, its temperature changes very little year round. Instead, the seasons are defined more by how much rainfall there is and naturally, what’s blooming.

Vietnamese Tet decorations outside Diamond Plaza in Ho Chi Minh

Vietnamese Tet 2019 takes place from February 5 to 7. And here in Ho Chi Minh City, preparations for the holiday have been underway for quite a while. Every day brings new surprises – bright yellow apricot trees flank business doorways, deep pink peach blossoms embellish shop windows and kumquat trees heavy with ripe fruits are displayed in living rooms and hotel lobbies.

And just like Christmas in the West, each lucky plant and flower carries its own special meaning.

Kumquat tree and poinsettias at a store entry

Yellow apricot blossoms (Hoa Mai) 

It’s hard to find a restaurant, public building or shop in southern Vietnam that doesn’t have at least a bouquet of these brilliant yellow flowers. Popularly known as yellow mai (spring) flower, the apricot blossom is the quintessential symbol of spring.

The shrubs blossom profusely here during Vietnamese Tet, where they are viewed as the spirit of the holiday. The timing of their blooms, coupled with the fact that the plants can endure the year-long heat and humidity of the region, make them very special flowers indeed. In Ho Chi Minh City, there are many beautiful artificial renditions as well.

The five-petal variety, most common in the southern part of the country, symbolizes the ‘Five Blessings” of longevity, wealth, peace, health and love of virtues. And the deep yellow color represents good luck, happiness and prosperity. 

 Apricot blossoms blooming on a fence in southern Vietnam

Peach blossoms (Hoa Dào)

Although you’ll see plenty of them in southern Vietnam, too, it’s the reddish-pink or pink petals of peach blossom that take center stage in northern Vietnam. Here, they are considered harbingers of good fortune. The most intensely colored ones are most favored.

Peach blossoms 

Peach blossoms are believed to ward off evil spirits. Blooming in early spring in the north (during Tet), they  bring fresh vitality to the home. Given that northern Vietnam is colder than the south, the flowers also are believed to have ‘brave heart’ as they bloom while while other plants remain dormant. They are believed to keep the family healthy and peaceful.

Workers spray paint gold branches to compliment peach blossoms in Ho Chi Minh

Illuminated peach blossom in shop window in Saigon

Kumquat tree (Cây Quãt)

A popular decoration for the living room, the many deep orange fruits of the kumquat tree symbolize, well, fruitfulness. And they bring good health and good luck to family businesses as well. Here in Ho Chi Minh City, you see the plants for sale on virtually every corner.

Pruned kumquat trees

For the best luck, a tree should have many fruits of similar size (both ripe and green) and big, shiny green leaves. The more fruit on the tree, the more luck for the family. Trees are carefully selected and prominently display in living rooms during Vietnamese Tet. 

Businesses will typically place the shrubs at the front door where they are in clear view of the street.

Kumquat tree fruits

Tradition holds that the kumquat tree represents many generations. The fruits are the grandparents, flowers are parents, buds symbolize children and new green leaves represent grandchildren. This makes the choice of the tree exceptionally important.

Bonsai and other important flowers

Of course, there are many other flowers that figure in the festivities, each with their own special meaning. Among them are the marigolds (symbols of longevity), cockscombs, orchids and chrysanthemums, which are broadly referred to as the yellow daisy.

Yellow chrysanthemum in a vase at a Buddhist temple in Ho Chi Minh

Pots of these bright yellow flowers can be seen all over the city, in front of homes, businesses and in temples and pagodas. Symbol of life, these flowers are believed to bring equilibrium to the household.

The Vietnamese purchase these special plants from lunar mid-December until just before Tet from flower markets like Ho Thi Ky in Ho Chi Minh City. They keep them from the beginning of the holiday until mid- Lunar New Year.

 

The Gardens Of Dalat, The ‘Little Paris’ Of Vietnam

It’s the middle of winter and summertime flowers are blanketing the hills of Dalat. And the show is only just beginning. At the end of February, the spectacle peaks when thousands of imported tulips and daffodils burst into bloom. I had the good fortune to visit this stunning city in January. Here is a window into the year-round perfect weather that is the ‘Little Paris’ of Vietnam.

Why is Dalat called ‘Little Paris’?

Located in the central highlands of Vietnam, the city of Dalat offers a refreshing break from the country’s hot, steamy weather. With year-round cool temperatures, mist-shrouded valleys and a central, man-made lake, it could almost pass for a small town in Switzerland. And an apt comparison that would be, as the city was originally built as a mountain resort by the French in the late 1800s.

View towards the lake from the terrace of Dalat Palace

Dalat earned its name ‘Little Paris’ for its wealth of French architecture. This includes broad boulevards and lakeside hotels and villas, remnants of the bygone Indochine era. But, the city is distinctly Vietnamese. There are boisterous outdoor markets, scores of motorbikes and an infinite variety of small, specialty shops whose colorful merchandise tumbles out onto the pavement.

And everywhere there are flowers, flowers and more flowers. Due to its spring-like weather, the area is known for its spectacular blooms. These include larger-than-life hydrangeas (for which Dalat is famous), species roses and unusual orchids, marigolds, chrysanthemums, mimosas and more. The flowers grow in abundance along roadsides, in highway medians and across parks. And they embellish all of the hotel grounds  and restaurants of the city.

It’s a flower-lover’s paradise. And thanks to its temperate climate, Dalat can grow plants all year round. This has made it the main grower and supplier of flowers to the rest of the country. A quick look around reveals thousands of greenhouses dominating the outskirts of the city.

Flower greenhouses and net houses dominate the outskirts of the city

Each day, millions of flowers are harvested, packed on to trucks and sped overnight to Ho Chi Minh’s flower markets. There, they are sold to merchants all over the city. This includes Saigon’s largest wholesale market, the Ho Thi Ky Flower Market. Truckers make this daily journey of 5-6 hours or more at high speed on winding mountain roads. (Local residents know to avoid these routes in the evening.)

Vendor unpacking lotuses from Dalat at Ho Thi Ky Flower Market

Dalat Flower Park

We had just two days in Dalat and luckily, our first day dawned spectacular and clear. So, we grabbed a taxi and headed out to the Dalat Flower Park. Located on the northern side of the lake, this beautifully maintained public garden attracts tourists and inhabitants alike. It boasts a large collection of over 300 varieties of flowers. 

The garden is divided into sections, each featuring bold swathes of one color. Framed by low, evergreen shrubs, the colorful blooms provide a dramatic contrast to the city’s high altitude clouds. 

Entrance to Dalat Flower Park

In addition to the formal areas, the park also features many bonsai and penjing landscapes as well as flowering trees.

Bonsai on display at Dalat Flower Park

Red flame tree

And a short climb up stone stairs brings you to the flower greenhouses filled with roses, specialty annuals and other species.

Trúc Lâm Temple and Monastery

Located just outside Dalat, this Zen Buddhist temple and monastery is another garden-lover’s dream. The most picturesque way to reach it is to take the cable car from Robin Hill, accessed about a mile outside the city center. We climbed aboard for the 2 1/2 mile ride (4 kilometers) and were instantly propelled across a sea of fragrant pines. Their thick, whorled leaves brushed against our vehicle, producing a slow, swishing sound as we rode.

About 10 minutes later, we disembarked at the parking lot below the monastery. A short climb brought us to the garden. The monastery sits on 35 hectares, all beautifully maintained by the resident monks and nuns. We were lucky to arrive in the late afternoon when the slanting sun set the many flowers to their best advantage.

Main public temple at the Trúc Lâm Monastery

Blue jade vine

Pale pink anthurium

Strelitzia

Flowers and vegetable parterres

Dalat can be reached by bus from Ho Chi Minh City, a journey that can take anywhere from 5 to 7 hours. Traffic can be heavy and as I mentioned before, the two-lane mountain roads are winding. Most people elect to fly from Saigon airport, a flight time of just over one half hour. Dry season is November through April with temperatures fluctuating year-round between 57 and 73 degrees Fahrenheit. 

For more information on Dalat, its hotels and tourist sites, click here.

 

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