You've probably never thought about how that bouquet gets from the greenhouse to your vase. Maybe you thought a perfect seed is lovingly planted in rich soil, grows up, up, up towards the sunlight, and when it's on the verge of bloom, it's carefully picked and carted off to your neighbourhood florist. You would be wrong.
Welcome to Royal FloraHolland, a stock exchange for flowers that's the size of 220 football fields. Royal FloraHolland in Aalsmeer, Netherlands, is the world's largest indoor trading hall. Millions of flowers and plants from all over the world are bought and sold here, daily.
You must be early to catch the auction in progress. We arrived at 7 a.m. to meet some Canadian compatriots for a tour. A small gift shop was already packed with people. Once our tickets were sorted out, we headed up to an overhead walkway spanning the cavernous hall. From this vantage point, we could appreciate the enormity of this operation.
By this time, mid-April, flower trading's high season is already over, but the mind can't quite comprehend more going on than there already is. Here, in the back of house, is where the real action is at Royal FloraHolland, before and after the flowers have been sold, not on the auction floor.
This kind of auction is for large buyers. You've got to be a member to bid, and that costs money. Actually, every rack, every cold storage space, every delivery has to be rented and paid for on top of your membership fee and winning bids.
20, 000 varieties of flowers and plants make their way through this facility: 3.7 billion roses, 1.7 billion tulips, 117 million phalaenopsis orchids. That's astronomical! The top five export countries are Germany, Britain, France, Italy and Russia; the top five import countries are Kenya, Ethiopia, Isreal, Belgium and Germany. Some flowers are kept in cold storage for six weeks on a ship for their journey to auction.
By the time we got to the auction room, the show was already over. Racks of flowers advance along the tracks in the floor while the "Dutch auction" takes place in the stands. In a Dutch auction, the price starts high and drops until the lucky bidder presses their button. Buyers know exactly what they need, which sellers they prefer, and what prices they want to pay.
The buyer's cart is parked in the bay, and as the bids come in, the cart is filled from hundreds of carts whizzing around. Then it's back into storage for the buyer to arrange transport.
All flowers are fresh and any leftover flowers are destroyed at the end of the day so the next day's flowers can still command the highest price. Sellers who have sub-par crops don't bother to bring their flowers in. It's not worth the cost and the ding on their pristine record. These flowers are the best of the best.
To be honest, it felt a little weird to be in this place. Knowing nothing about the stock market or auctions but what I've seen on television, I expected an intimate chaos with yelling, waving arms and flashing ticker tape. Instead, it felt like we were far above it all. We were, literally. From this vantage point, everything was playmobil.
Maybe that's why the end of the tour lets you have a little fun in the middle of the action.
Visiting Royal FloraHolland might not give you a chance to smell the roses, but it's a true marvel of scale and logistics that must be seen to be believed!