- The Washington Times - Monday, February 12, 2001

A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose, as writer Gertrude Stein once famously said. Except on Valentine's Day Wednesday when the flower becomes something more.

A box of chocolates will do, maybe even an ivy plant cut in the shape of a heart, but the real test of love and devotion now and always is the gift of a dozen roses with their velvety perfumed crimson petals in peak condition, their stems shorn of excess leaves and thorns.

Perish any thought of California's energy crisis interfering with supplies available in Washington this week. Growers out West facing losses caused by cutbacks in heat to greenhouses may suffer. But not Ge Kester of Kester Wholesale Floral Co., the sturdy hard-working native Dutchman who is the area's largest floral wholesaler. He gets most of his red long-stemmed beauties from South America, as many as 200,000 in a week, to meet the needs of several hundred florists and special customers who include the White House.

"Business doubles and triples this week," says Mr. Kester, taking a few moments from hands-on supervision and participation in processing activities on the 40,000-square-foot floor of the former warehouse he owns in Landover, Md.

"It is the biggest week of the year in money terms, but more flowers actually are needed for Mother's Day in May when the demand is for variety."

• • •

Mr. Kester handles 70 varieties of roses alone. More types of flowers mean more care. A Mother's Day arrangement or a floral bouquet can have up to 20 different kinds of flowers, from as many different countries. Fifty percent of the flowers he uses year-round come from Holland, where he was born 43 years ago. He came to this country on a one-way ticket in 1983 and started in the wholesale business by helping out a friend.

Planes loaded with boxed roses arrive at the airport in Miami around the clock from Colombia, Ecuador and Mexico and are trucked to Kester's where they are kept in temperatures between 40 and 50 degrees to keep them from developing further. Flowers don't drink water when they are cold, thereby inhibiting the bloom.

Later, the flowers are sorted and repackaged by hand before delivery to customers in the early morning. Mr. Kester keeps 14 white unmarked trucks working 12 hours a day, six days a week in peak season. The only "down day" is Tuesday, after most of the week's orders have been filled and the weekend rush has yet to begin.

"People want them fresh," he says, noting that the time from greenhouse to florist can be as little as 48 hours. "Flowers can lose 30 percent of their weight between the time they are cut and the time they reach the florist," he says.

"People expect perfection all the time," he adds.

Long-standing customers include Allan Woods, of Allan Woods Flowers & Gifts at 2645 Connecticut Ave. NW, who expects to sell as many as 300 dozen roses by the close of business Wednesday.

"It's a toss-up, whether Valentine's Day or Mother's Day is the busiest," says Mr. Woods, who also relies on other wholesalers in the area. (For tulips, lilies, freesias and smaller-size roses, he often works directly with a broker in Holland.)

Yes, his roses are expensive this week: $90 a dozen, considerably more than the regular price of $50. "It's the law of supply and demand," he says. As demand spirals so does his overhead. "Everybody wants their flowers delivered early in the day. Some people call at 3 p.m. and complain if their order hasn't arrived."

The only break in tradition, he says, is a slight shift away from orders for long stemmed red roses in favor of arrangements using shorter flowers.

Like most people, Miss Stein probably didn't know what a rose goes through before it reaches the market.

"It takes three roses to get one for Valentine's Day: Three [potential flowers] give up their life for one," Mr. Kester says. "The bushes are cut back in December and January to get more buds. It's clinically controlled. Growers cut their product for two months to get one week's supply."

"One reason roses are expensive is because it takes so long for them to grow 12 weeks. The climate must be environmentally friendly. Roses can't stand extremes."

He says he has no idea why a rose is the most popular Valentine's Day flower, but he is very protective of his product. Few of his flowers ever need to be thrown away because of improper handling.

"Each flower is different, like a fingerprint," he says, "because each one is grown in a different place." He deals with as many as 200 suppliers all over the globe who provide him with as many as 1,000 varieties of flowers. Several dozen growers alone supply him with roses.

Out of every customer's dollar, he says 40 percent goes to the grower, 15 percent to the dealer or middleman, and the rest 45 percent to the retailer for whom he says he has great respect.

"A florist is an artist like a chef or painter," he says.

Mr. Woods sometimes feels more like a butcher. "I can determine the kind of year I have had by how many cuts are on my thumb," he says while carefully trimming each stem in the six boxes of flowers that have arrived from Kester Wholesale.

Mr. Kester says it is more cost efficient to have flowers from South America trucked 20 hours from Miami's airport rather than put onto another airplane and flown here. The trucks are properly cooled, and the flowers are revived with forced air after the transfer. (Most deliveries the rest of the year the majority of his business come through Washington Dulles International Airport.)

"Basically, we are in the transportation business," he says, except on Super Bowl weekend, the slowest time in his business year. "There are no weddings then," he says.

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