- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 27, 2012

The woman, Ramiro Penaherrera recalls, was from Texas. Probably in her 60s. He never asked her name. It was Memorial Day of last year, and Mr. Penaherrera, a flower grower from Ecuador, was handing out roses two at a time — one to place atop the headstones at Arlington National Cemetery, the other for visitors to take with them, a reminder of loved ones lost.

The woman approached. Dressed in jeans and a floppy hat, flowers bunched under his arm, Mr. Penaherrera asked if she would like to decorate a grave.

“This is really wonderful,” the woman said. “My husband sent me roses on the day he was born.”

Mr. Penaherrera was confused. How could he … “It took me a second to realize what she was saying,” he said. “She was going to put flowers on the grave of her son. That’s pretty powerful.”

A 57-year old who grew up in Washington, Mr. Penaherrera is the founder of Memorial Day Flowers, an organization that distributes donated flowers to visitors at Arlington National Cemetery and other cemeteries around the country.

On Memorial Day, more than 100 local volunteers will hand out 50,000 Ecuadorean roses and 1,000 red, white and blue flower bouquets at four Arlington cemetery locations, including Section 60, one of the burial areas for soldiers killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Last year, Mr. Penaherrera and 15 volunteers gave out 10,000 roses at the cemetery, which according to a spokesperson typically hosts about 75,000 visitors over the holiday weekend.

Some flower recipients offered spontaneous hugs. Others offered money, which the volunteers refused. A few visitors spontaneously told their stories. One man, Mr. Penaherrera recalled, simply repeated “my buddy,” over and over, visibly stricken with grief.

Anita Bemis-Dougherty, an Alexandria-based physical therapist, was at Arlington to visit the graves of her parents and uncle, all of whom served in the military. She initially thought the roses were for the families of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and approached a volunteer to offer thanks; when the volunteer said she could take a flower home, she nearly cried.

Lin Schmale, a volunteer and flower industry lobbyist, said the memory of the day still moves her to tears.

“It was so touching to see how appreciative people were of being handed a flower, just having it in their hands, and how much it really meant to them,” said Ms. Schmale, senior director of government relations for the Society of American Florists. “We want them to have something beautiful that they can put on a grave, something that hopefully makes a very sad experience feel a bit better.”

Mr. Penaherrera, who attended the Landon School in Bethesda and pursued a stand-up comedy career in California before becoming a successful organic flower farmer in Ecuador, said the idea for Memorial Day Flowers was born when he and two American friends wanted to congratulate the U.S. following last year’s killing of Osama bin Laden.

Mr. Penaherrera also wanted to honor five family members buried at Arlington: his grandfather, who served in World War I; his grandmother; and three uncles, who served in the Spanish-American War, WWI and World War II.

Despite a spat between the United States and Ecuador in April 2011 that saw the two nations expel each other’s ambassadors in the wake of an unflattering diplomatic cable leak, Mr. Penaherrera had little trouble persuading Ecuadorean growers to donate roses — in part because Mr. Penaherrera had built strong personal relationships during his three decades of working in the country; in part because the United States is a major export market for Ecuador’s floral industry. According to the Society of American Florists, more than 85 percent of the fresh flowers most commonly sold in the United States — including roses and carnations — are imported from South America, with Ecuador accounting for $123 million of imported flower value in 2009.

Though Mr. Penaherrera is both a member of and a public advocate for an Ecuadorean flower industry that has been criticized in the past by international watchdog groups and environmental advocates for harmful pesticide use and dubious labor practices, he said that the Memorial Day Flowers program is not a public relations ploy.

“The flower business in Ecuador has really grown because of the United States, and a lot of us there are appreciative of America,” Mr. Penaherrera said. “People here should know about that. But I’m not a politician, and that’s not why I did this. I’m doing this because I’m pretty damn patriotic.

“In Ecuador, most of the flower growers I know didn’t know that Memorial Day existed. Even if they went to school in the States, they got out and went home the first week of May. So what I say to Ecuadoreans is, ‘Look, it’s because of the people buried in these cemeteries that we can have our own culture, that if we have to learn German or Japanese in school, it’s an elective and not a requirement.’ “

To transport 50,000 roses from Ecuador to Virginia — and ensure the flowers don’t wilt — Mr. Penaherrera enlisted the help of the Delaware Valley Floral Group, a New Jersey-based national floral distributor. According to its director, Kevin Clifford, the roses were harvested 11 days before shipping, packed into roughly 2,000 boxes, flown to Miami and trucked to New Jersey for trimming and placement into water before arriving in Washington on Sunday. During each step, the flowers were kept at a temperature of 35 degrees, requiring chilled water, refrigerated trucks and airplanes and a special vacuum system in Miami that pulls cool air through flower shipping boxes.

Mr. Clifford said that the commercial cost of the Memorial Day Flowers operation would be between $400,000 and $500,000.

“People think it’s easy to get a flower — grow it, cut it, give it to someone,” Mr. Clifford said. “It’s actually quite an operation. Not a cheap activity.”

Like Mr. Penaherrera, Mr. Clifford plans to hand out flowers at Arlington National Cemetery on Monday and hopes to expand the program over time.

“Our goal is to place a rose on every single headstone at Arlington — that’s something like 274,000 roses — and extend it to other national cemeteries,” he said. “Ramiro and I get a little overexcited at times. But it comes down to honoring people who have borne an extreme burden and the ones they leave behind that continue to bear that burden.”

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