Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Colombian Tropical Flowers: A Brief History of How Weeds Became Jewels

Colombia’s magical realism is not only a reflection of its people. It also comes from its unique, lush landscape. The weird animals. The mystical woods, jungles, and spongy alpine tundras. Weather is extreme – from deluges of rain to unbearable dry heat on the plains. Tropical forests drip with humidity and the oddest beings grow there. The colors, shapes, forms, and smells of Colombia’s tropical flowers are where science fiction comes from. They are magical realism.

What started out as a thesis from a horticulture grad student at the University of Colorado became a revolution and changed the economic course of Colombia. Initially flower cultivations were centered in Bogota – because of its location (just three hours from Miami) and unique geographic, climatic and soil conditions. Sun all day long in a temperate climate with cheap labor – these factors added up to an economic boom. Now the second biggest exporter of flowers in the world shipping, annually, more than a billion dollars in flowers, Colombia has flower power.

Roses, carnations, gerbera daisies and alstroemeria lilies were bunched and shipped to, predominantly, the United States. The biggest supplier of flowers in the US were small US farms, complemented by Colombian bunches. The Colombian flower market really got a boost when, in 1991, all duties on Colombian flower imports were lifted to stimulate the flower industry. The US went from importing 100 million blooms each year to two billion each year over the following 12 years.

Ironically, a country that boasts the most tropical varieties of plants and flowers never looked, for years, beyond the traditional blooms for exportation. The hundreds of varieties of Heliconias were considered weeds. In the 1990s, though, that began to change.
Farmers throughout the country started to see possibilities in the tropical flower industry – initially focusing on big bouquets for hotels and decorations. Many uprooted coffee, fruit and other traditional cultivations and started to grow tropical flowers. These farmers formed a network and began to trade species and tips. Flowers need leaves. So foliage cultivations started as well. Add national incentives, consultations, agricultural experts, and a legacy of successful flower exportation, the tropical Colombian flower market is on the rise.

Tropical cut flowers won’t ever compete in numbers with the traditional stems. Though tropical flowers are only 4% of all cut flowers in the world (an estimated 1% in the USA), with a billion blooms per year from Colombia alone, that’s potential for 40 million cut tropical flowers in a year. The US, Japan, Germany and Italy are the biggest importers of tropical flowers. Colombia shares this market space with The Netherlands and Hawaii, but because of its perfect climatic conditions – remember, heliconias were considered weeds – and less expensive labor, Colombian flower farmers are finding a niche market with their tropical jewels.

Sharing the exotic world of Colombian tropical flowers, the colors and fragrances, exuberance and textures, is giving a piece of Colombia to the world, a window to Colombia’s beauty. A bouquet of magical realism.

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