Before you give a rose to someone you love this Valentine’s Day, that flower needs to travel the globe. These days, that’s no easy trip.
Farmers cultivate the flowers along the equator, where the roses stretch their stems toward the sun. In 60 days time, soil gives way to thorns and velvety petals. They’re cut, packed, and shipped on refrigerated airplanes to Miami or New Jersey. Finally, they are trucked north to New England.
But because of logistical havoc unleashed by the COVID-19 pandemic, several of those steps are fractured. And so Valentine’s Day this year may not be as rosy as we imagined.
“If only you could push a button and have roses fall out of the sky,” said Gerry Cupp, a wholesaler at the New England Flower Exchange in Chelsea.
More than 250 million roses were produced for Valentine’s Day in 2018, according to the Society of American Florists. They complement candlelit dinners, teddy bears, and heart-shaped chocolate boxes — staples of the holiday. With celebrations fast approaching, florists have strategized to beef up their inventory of roses in the hopes a shortage won’t materialize.
But fears abound. “It’s not the end of the world,” said Cupp, whose Cupp and Cupp Corp. sells nearly a million roses each February. “People will get their flowers … But we worry about it constantly.”
Issues start at the source: farms. Rose producers from Colombia to Kenya put off plantings when the pandemic first raged through the world in 2020. Workers were laid off; farms closed. It shrunk the global supply of an already limited and delicate flower.
Kelly Shore, a Maryland wholesaler who sends to Massachusetts and beyond, said she watched domestic farmers destroy unwanted piles of blooms in the months after COVID first hit — “a really, really sad sight.” Floral industry employment nationally dropped to 5.64 million in December 2020, its lowest level in seven years, according to the National Association of Wholesale Distributors.
Then lockdowns lifted, and a boom began. Long-postponed weddings brought unprecedented demand for dahlias and peonies. Americans flocked to gardening as a pandemic pastime or sent bouquets for graduations and funerals they couldn’t attend in person. A rush for spring blooms on Mother’s Day sparked a shortage and sky-high prices.
But “the worst of the crunch seems to be in the past now,” Cupp said.
There’s hope the supply chain is recovering, even while the nationwide deficit of truckers endures, ports remain clogged with containers, and grocery stores shelves are sometimes empty. Behind closed doors, these circumstances prompted florists to order roses early and adjust expectations on price and shipping.
Cupp said his blooms take three times longer than usual to arrive and cost $4 per kilo, a sizable uptick from pre-pandemic prices.
It’s manageable but difficult, said Heather Sullivan, owner of Durocher Florist in West Springfield. Weather is yet another concern, she said. Heavier rainfall and cold temperatures in South America once hindered rose supply.
Last February, her shop sold out of roses — somewhere between 5,000 and 8,000 blooms. This year, she expects the need to be higher.
“Valentine’s Day is a Monday, which means fewer people may go away for the weekend and buy flowers instead,” Sullivan said. “It’s also the day after the Super Bowl, so there will be more last-minute purchases.”
Forever in competition with one another, florists also find themselves up against supermarkets. Large retailers often work exclusively with rose farms or purchase their own to maintain supply, edging out mom-and-pop businesses.
Around 80 percent of grocery store inventory comes directly from farms, said Paula Parziale, the president of Boston-based wholesaler Direct Flowers. (Two decades ago, she worked as a flower buyer for Star Market.) Stores only turn to local suppliers — farms or wholesalers — for specialty orders and last-minute deliveries, Parziale added.
Shore, the Maryland wholesaler, said farms may prefer to work with grocery stores, too, because they offer steadier profits.
“Mass market gets the first pick,” she said. “They can move more products. They’re selling out week after week.”
A Stop & Shop representative told the Globe via e-mail that “potential transportation issues as a result of COVID-19 may become a factor,” but that the chain is “well-positioned” with inventory of best-selling bouquets.
Not all florists are so lucky.
Above advertisements for “Wild Romance” and “Love Letter” bouquets on its website, Everett Florist posted a message in late January: “Due to circumstances out of our control, there is a [shortage] on some flowers and availability. Floral bouquets may have some substitutions.” It was removed a week later. (The shop did not respond to requests for comment.)
And Randy Ricker, the former owner of Brattle Street Florist, wrote in a December message that the Harvard Square shop could not “meet the demands of Valentine’s Day in February, traditionally our busiest time.”
The shop has since changed ownership and plans to move to a smaller storefront nearby.
All this could signal that it’s time to abandon Cupid’s favorite flower. Robin Rubin, the owner of Robin’s Flower Shop in the Financial District, said customers — and florists — might find it easier if people branched out, giving proteas, tulips, ranunculus, and wax flowers a try instead.
Of course, that’s not the case.
“In February, it’s red roses or die,” Rubin said. “It’s a red rose holiday.”