Amsterdam – Tulips and Daffodils and Hyacinths oh My!

By Kathryn Marchi

          Those beautiful flowers in the vase on your dining room table may have had a long journey before they got to you.  No matter where you purchased them, you probably didn’t have a clue as to their origin. We tend to take these things for granted.

When traveling to Holland most tourists find an opportunity to see the famous “Flower Road” where beds of tulips, daffodils, iris, narcissi and hyacinths form wide ribbons of brilliant color that flow as far as you can see.  Most of us, however, are not aware of how all of those beautiful Dutch flowers are distributed after being harvested.

The answer lies in the small town of Aalsmeer, which is 10 miles from Amsterdam, and the home of the Aalsmeer flower auction. It is one of six flower auction sites belonging to the FloraHolland Corporation and reputed to be the biggest trade center in the world.  In fact, one description of its size states that the auction area is equivalent to 182 football fields. Its export business handles a huge range of flowers and plants. During a typical auction day, which begins at 6:30 a.m., an average of 20 million flowers are sold.

Tourists arriving at the flower auction complex are taken inside a huge warehouse to a catwalk high above the main market floor, enabling them to walk around part of the perimeter. The aroma of fresh flowers greets them at the door and they can gaze down at a veritable mosaic of 13,000 types of colorful flowers that are packed in boxes and loaded onto thousands of three- and four-tiered mobile carts.  These carts are hooked together and move as a train through the warehouse and into auction rooms where hundreds of bidders are seated behind computers in tiers of seats much like a movie theater. As the carts of flowers are rolled in, large screens behind them display the kind of flower, origin, colors and minimum quantity available. The bidding is all done silently through the computers and bids and times are flashed on the screen in a large clock.

Unlike American auctions, the Dutch auction sets a high price and bidding is done on decreasing amounts. As the clock hand moves about the clock face, bidders can enter their bids, trying for the lowest price.  This bidding goes very quickly and the flowers are readied for shipment immediately. There are five such auction rooms and 13 clocks in the complex, so it’s easy to see how so many flowers are auctioned off in one day.  To visitors this is all quite confusing, even if it obviously works for this auction on a daily basis.

In this thriving export business, an efficient system for getting these delicate flowers out to market is imperative. Eighty to 90 percent are shipped within 24 hours in refrigerated trucks to European destinations. Flowers to be shipped to the USA are sent by overnight air freight and often arrive the evening of the sale and get to the New York flower district by 3:30 a.m. the next morning.  They will then be sold and distributed throughout the country, perhaps landing in one of our local supermarkets.

In the end, we should marvel at the freshness and beauty of those flowers in the vase on our dining room table.  We now know and appreciate the journey they may have taken.



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