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Let a Billion Flowers Bloom

Twenty-one million flowers and plants are auctioned daily at Aalsmeer.
Herman Wouters /Hollandse Hoogte, for The New York Time
Twenty-one million flowers and plants are auctioned daily at Aalsmeer.

By ELIZABETH POPE

Published: March 28, 2004

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Herman Wouters /Hollandse Hoogte, for The New York Time
Clocks display information on quality and number of flowers per lot and starting price.


Herman Wouters /Hollandse Hoogte, for The New York Time
Roses are perennial best sellers.

IT was last winter in Amsterdam and two gardeners from Maine were in serious need of a flower fix. My friend Joan and I hadn't glimpsed a green shoot or delicate petal for months.

But early March was too soon for the flower lover's twin Dutch rites - a visit to the renowned Keukenhof tulip fields, which will open March 25 this year, and Haarlem's flower parade, the bloemencorso, held a month later. Even Amsterdam's parks were bare of leaf and bloom.

After biking around the city and visiting museums full of Rembrandts, Vermeers and Van Goghs, we were ready for a spirit-lifting infusion of color and fragrance. Our hotel recommended Aalsmeer, the world's largest flower auction, where every weekday 21 million cut flowers and plants are sold through a process called a Dutch clock auction. Each year, more than five billion flowers from 7,000 nurseries around the world are auctioned off and shipped all over the globe.

"You must get there early or you won't see anything," the driver told us as we climbed aboard the 6:20 a.m. bus from Amsterdam for the 10-mile trip. A half-dozen other passengers were sleeping or sipping coffee in the darkness. Forty minutes later, the sun was just coming up as we pulled into the lakeside village of Aalsmeer.

Several large greenhouses and flower export companies in business parks signaled our approach to the 340-acre auction complex on the outskirts of the town. "My God, it's huge," Joan said, as we gazed awestruck at the collection of buildings straddling both sides of the road. The climate-controlled auction building, nearly 250 acres, is, according to the Guinness Book of Records, the world's largest commercial edifice, the equivalent of 165 soccer fields. It houses auction rooms, a dispatch and loading center, forwarders, customs and plant protection services, banks and restaurants. About 10,000 people work there.

Aalsmeer operates 24 hours a day on weekdays year round, except holidays, but all the bustle is over by noon. We'd missed the midnight rush hour when flowers and potted plants arrive from Kenya, Israel, Ecuador and Spain as well as nearby Dutch greenhouses. The auctions had begun at 6:30 a.m., and already 16-wheelers painted with bright flower logos were hauling their fragile cargo to Western European markets and nearby Schiphol Airport.

After a brief introduction from Ria Sluis, a guide at the visitors center, we picked up a booklet for the self-guided tour and started down the half-mile-long catwalk suspended 20 feet above the growers and buyers area. Push-button audio sound boxes in seven languages detail the action on the floor below and in four of the five auction rooms that visitors may view through plate-glass windows. A small group of Japanese businessmen soon followed us, but otherwise we had the place to ourselves.

Below us, as far as we could see, was frantic activity amid a psychedelic blur of bloom and fragrance. I thought I could detect the scent of tulips, lisianthus and clove-scented stocks. The floor of the huge hall was covered with row upon row of large, three-tiered carts laden with buckets of roses, tulips, lilies, hyacinths, lilacs, orchids and potted plants. Roses, always the top seller, predominated. International Women's Day, celebrated in Russia and other Eastern European countries with bouquets of red roses, was approaching, and buckets of long-stemmed beauties were ready to go.

Inspectors were checking floral quality on the carts, which number about 10,000 on any given day (double that for the weeks before Christmas, Valentine's Day and Mother's Day). Were the flowers cut too soon or too late? Were there any diseases or pests? Were stems uneven? All defects were noted, to be posted later on the giant electronic clock. If a flower lot had too many flaws, it was rejected to preserve Aalsmeer's reputation for high-quality blooms. Meanwhile, blue-jacketed workers were busy assembling orders of sold flowers by hooking the carts in a train behind scooters to be hauled away and processed for shipping. Other employees put together mixed bouquets of cut flowers and wrapped them in cellophane, ready for a supermarket's floral department.

The pace was brisk and nobody dawdled; workers pedaled about on bicycles to save time. We were reminded of the three keys to the flower industry - to be quick, quick and quick. A rose air-freighted out of Kenya at night and sold under the Aalsmeer clock at dawn can be packed, loaded on a truck and ready for sale in a Paris flower shop by that afternoon. According to an Aalsmeer spokeswoman, Adrienne Lansbergen, about 10 percent of the flowers are sent to the United States and Japan, and the airplanes at Schiphol don't wait.

A Dutch clock auction works in reverse of a usual auction. The auctioneer sets the starting price high and prices go down until a buyer freezes the price with the push of a button, winning the lot. There is no counterbidding. Every weekday a small army of brokers, exporters and wholesalers arrive at 5 a.m. to inspect the merchandise in vast cooling rooms and check orders for their clients before the auctions start. Through one auction-room window we saw about 300 buyers, all men, sitting at desks in stadium-style seats - laptops open, cellphones ready - their fingers poised on electronic buttons at their consoles. A haze of cigarette smoke filled the room, and coffee cups littered the floor.

Beneath two giant computerized clocks, flower carts shuttled quickly on motorized trolley tracks. The buyers studied the blinking lights circling both clock faces, where a clock's numbers would ordinarily be. The lights represent the price of a single flower in euro cents from 1 to 100. Illuminated numbers and words on the clock also list the product on offer, the supplier, quality and number of flowers per unit offered and minimum purchase. The clock lights flashed as the flower carts trundled past while the buyers listened through headsets to the auctioneer firing off details of the batch. Each sale takes a fraction of a second, so it's hard to decipher what is happening, and to the uninitiated the process is mysterious.

With more than 10,000 transactions an hour in the five rooms combined, buyers are under great pressure to make instantaneous decisions and may bid 200 to 300 times a day, according to Ms. Lansbergen. If they push the button too soon, they may pay too much, and if a fraction of a second late, they lose out to a competitor. When a bell rang at 10 a.m., everyone stopped working and headed to the snack bars scattered around the building for coffee, herring and gossip. We got a cup of tepid coffee from a machine and hurried on.

Behind the clock rooms were glass-walled research centers where new varieties of flowers are tested for shelf life, and buyers can examine the latest floral trends. Fashion's whims apply to flowers, too, and the industry pays close attention to what will be the next curly willow, pink Calla lily or black rose.

By tradition Dutch auctions are a guy thing. Somewhat unpersuasively we were told by Ms. Sluis that the cutthroat business demands excellent hand-eye coordination and complete devotion to duty, as well as hours that don't mesh with family life. (Only about 25 of the more than 1,300 buyers are women, according to Ms. Lansbergen.)

Aalsmeer, officially known as the Bloemenveiling Aalsmeer (VBA), is a cooperative with 3,300 grower members. Its origins lie in the so-called "green" auctions of 100 years ago, when buyers would gather in a farmer's field to bid on vegetables. By 1911, Aalsmeer's flower growers, hoping to gain some leverage over traders, adopted the idea and organized a cooperative with the first auction in a coffeehouse.

Until about 35 years ago, the auctions were timed by a real clock, with the hands sweeping down from "noon," which represented the highest price. The VBA then built computer systems to accommodate the auctions' special demands. Today, the cooperative takes great pride in its sophisticated automation, technology and transportation systems. Even nonflower people would find it of interest.

After our tour, we had just enough time before the next bus to stop in the gift shop to pick up pens and T-shirts as souvenirs. Reluctantly we passed up the fat gladioli, dahlia and lily bulbs knowing they would never make it through U.S. Customs. Energized by our total immersion in more flowers than we'd ever seen in one place, Joan and I headed back to Amsterdam for lunch. We were ready to face the last weeks of winter in Maine, with the gardening season just around the corner.

The Flower Auction

Bus No. 172, which you can catch from the square in front of the Victoria Hotel across from Centraal Station in Amsterdam, goes to Aalsmeer. (The one-way trip takes six strips on the strippenkaart, the paper ticket used on public buses; $3.40, at $1.25 to the euro.) Follow signs to the visitors center in the large building with the red tulip logo.

Auctions are open to visitors Monday to Friday, 7:30 to 11 a.m., closed on holidays. Monday morning before 9 a.m. is the best time, Wednesday and Thursday are quietest. (Aalsmeer is most frenetic before a major floral occasion such as Valentine's Day or Mother's Day.) Admission is $5.60; for children 6 to 11, $3.15.

There is a self-service restaurant, offering soups, sandwiches, salads and hot and cold dishes, and a souvenir shop in the complex. For more information, call the visitors center at (31-297) 39 21 85 or 39 80 50, or check http://www.aalsmeer.com/.

ELIZABETH POPE writes about gardening and travel from Portland, Me.

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