The flowers and plants you buy can come from every last corner of Europe, or even of the world. But how do these flowers and plants reach you at home? The flowers and plants go through a series of stages before they end up in a vase in your home. For many flowers and plants, one of these stages is an auction. It's the easiest way for growers to distribute their products and at the same location a one-stop shop for buyers to get their supply. Here's all you want and need to know about the world's biggest horticultural trading place, Royal FloraHolland.
The world's biggest flower auctions are located in the Netherlands as part of the Royal FloraHolland organization. There are three major branches of this multi-billion auction, in order of size: Aalsmeer, Naaldwijk, and Rijnsburg. These used to be three different, competing auctions. However, in 2008 this competition was turned into a collaboration when the three auctions merged into what is now the cooperative Royal FloraHolland.
What Is a Cooperative?
A cooperative means that the company is made up of members, like in a sports club. Royal FloraHolland is a primary cooperative. The members decide what does or does not happen. Royal FloraHolland has a total of 6,000 members both in the Netherlands and overseas. The growers came up with the idea of selling their products in the same place. This meant that most customers also came to that place. This meant that the growers could sell more products at a higher price. These growers then set up a company together, a cooperative. They sell their products as a cooperative, but they grow everything separately.
In this explanatory story, you will learn how the flower auction works, from the birth of a flower to the world markets.
The Birth of a New Flower
Did you know that every year between 1,200 and 1,500 new flowers and plants are created in the Netherlands? Growers develop new flowers and plants in order to keep up with trends. A grower, for example, may want to improve the quality of his products, such as larger flowers, more leaves, or longer lasting. Before a new flower or plant is brought to market, there is a whole process to go through. It takes a long time to create a new flower or plant, around five or six years.
To create a new flower or plant you have to begin with breeding. Let’s assume: there are no orange roses yet, and you want to create them. You create orange by mixing red and yellow, just as you do with paint. You put red roses and yellow roses in your glasshouse. When the flowers are blooming, you take a bit of pollen from a red rose. You put the pollen on a yellow rose, this pollinates the yellow rose.
Then you wait until the bush starts flowering again. Because the yellow roses were pollinated by the red roses, the new flowers should be a bit more orange. You need to keep pollinating for as long as it takes until the flowers are the color that you want. Because you need to wait each time until the bush flowers again, it can take years.
When finally you have a bush with the right color of roses, you need to create more bushes from that single bush. This is called propagation. What you actually want is a glasshouse full of orange roses. You need to take cuttings and just hope that the bushes that grow from the cuttings will have the same orange roses as the first bush. So someone who practices breeding and propagation needs to have plenty of patience!
There are people who have made it their profession to discover new flowers and plants. These people are known as 'plant hunters'. The plant hunters search everywhere for beautiful, crazy, nice flowers and plants. For instance in the wild, and in nature. When they find something, then they go to a breeder to get multiple samples of it. Sometimes some really lovely new flowers and plants are created. A grower may have a strange, misshapen flower standing among his flowers. He can pull it out and then grow others from it.
A new flower or plant of course has to be given a name. A name consists of the genus (for example 'rose') and the type (such as 'large-flowered ). After that, a breeder can then also add an invented name. Some growers choose the name of their wives or children. There are also growers who name their new flower after a famous person, such as the 'Máxima' tulip, named after the Queen of the Netherlands. By naming it for a celebrity, the breeder hopes to get newspaper coverage, this makes the flower better known and more of it will sell.
The whole process from garden to vase then continues with the grower. A grower runs a business where he/she cultivates flowers or plants. Once these products are mature enough to sell, they are harvested or picked and packaged for sale.
Flowers are placed in buckets with water or in cardboard boxes, for example. Then these flower buckets and boxes are stacked on special auction trolleys.
Plants go into pots or plastic tubs, of which several fit in plastic plant trays. These are then stacked on special CC containers. Then the products are ready to travel to the auction.
Once the grower has picked and packed the flowers or plants, they are ready to go off to auction. But how do the flowers and plants get to the auction? Every day, thousands of auction trolleys are transported, with different kinds of flowers and plants. If a grower lives close to an auction center, then he may drive them using his own van or truck. There are also special trucks driving around the Netherlands that collect flowers and plants from growers and deliver them to the auction centers. These trucks are chilled so that the flowers and plants remain fresher for longer.
Flowers and plants also arrive from abroad. These come to the auction center mainly by plane or truck. There are also other forms of transport, by sea and by train. So, the Dutch flower auction also offers imported products.
What Is Import?
There are also growers who do not live in the Netherlands but still sell their flowers and plants through Royal FloraHolland. The flowers and plants from abroad, for example from Africa, are flown to the Netherlands by plane in cartons. Here the flowers are unpacked and placed in buckets with water. The next day the products are auctioned at the clock.
Each day, flowers and plants arrive from more than sixty different countries at Royal FloraHolland’s different locations. The imported flowers mainly come from warmer countries like Kenya, Ethiopia, and Israel. You might think that flowers would be damaged if they are packed tightly into a large carton, without water. However, most flowers can survive this easily. It is in fact better to pack them tightly into a carton because the less they move around, the less they are damaged in transit. In addition, the time that the flowers are kept in a carton is as short as possible. The flowers are packed up just before they are loaded into the plane. As soon as they arrive at Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands, they are sent directly to the closeby auction center and unpacked again.
Cold Storage at the Flower Auction
Once flowers and plants arrive at the auction center, where are the products stored? The auction center has large chilled storage rooms providing cold storage. In these cold storage rooms, the temperature is kept between about 5-8 degrees Celsius, like the fridge in your home. If a flower is cold, then the flower will 'hibernate'. This means that the flower stays tightly closed, so it can be kept longer. Plants are not put into cold storage, they are simply placed in a normal storage room at the auction center.
Royal FloraHolland has the largest cold storage in the world in Naaldwijk. The cold storage area covers 52,000 square meters!
What Is an Auction? Let's Explain it With a Coke
If you buy something in a supermarket, like a can of coke, it has a fixed price. The price is shown on a price tag. So far, so good, right? However, if you auction a product, no one knows in advance how much you will need to pay for it to become the owner of that product. Weird? Not really, it is actually a very smart system. Just take a look at this example:
If you and your neighbor both want a can of coke and there are enough cans available in the supermarket, then you don’t need to offer a high price. That is what we call 'market forces', a balance in supply and demand. The demand (how many people are thirsty) and the supply (how many cans the supermarket owner has) determine the price.
If you would buy a rare object, such as a painting by Banksy, there will be more than one person interested. So it can be put on auction. The bidding goes up until there is only one person left to pay the top price. This person 'wins' the auction and is the new owner.
Auctioning flowers works the other way around. Although they are limited in supply, they are not unique. There might be 2 buckets of a product to be auctioned, but there might also be 200 buckets. And the buyer does not always want to buy the whole lot, just a part of it. This is complicated. It would take too much time to auction every single stem, bunch, bucket, or lot at a flower auction bidding upwards. So, over a hundred years ago, the first flower auction in the Netherlands decided to turn the process around.
The clock is the instrument for this. It has a pointer that starts at a top price that gradually counts down to zero. The first person to stop the clock is the buyer who has the right to buy any quantity between the minimum for sale and the whole lot. It goes super fast these days because all buyers at the clocks are professionals when it comes to knowing all about the products and the reasonable price level of the moment.
Back to the can of coke. Suppose you would sell this at a flower auction. The price starts at 1 dollar. Nobody's buying yet. The price starts dropping to 90 cents... 80 cents... 70... , and then the clock is stopped by somebody at 64 cents. This is the one who can enjoy his coke because he has just bought this can.
Each day, hundreds of customers come and buy flowers and plants, starting at 6:00 am at one of the thirty-five auction clocks at Royal FloraHolland. The information about the product currently being auctioned, such as the quantity, type, color, the grower’s name, etc. is displayed on the auction clock. Within just a few hours, the auction sells millions of flowers and plants. Every Monday to Friday, week after week, year after year, for over a century already.
How Does the Clock Work?
Flowers and plants are auctioned in a bidding room. The Dutch word for this is 'afmijnzaal' (roughly translated to mine room). It dates from the days when a customer wanted to buy a product they shouted out the word “mine!”. A bidding room is a room where the customers sit and from where they can see the Royal FloraHolland auction clocks. The customers sitting in the bidding rooms come there every working day at six in the morning to start buying products.
Check this YouTube video for an explanation of the clocks at Royal FloraHolland
Different products are sold at each clock. Clock 1, for example, sells roses, and clock 2 chrysanthemums, and so on. The auction carries on until the point when all the flowers and plants for that day have been sold, mostly in between a period of 3 to 6 hours. In the Royal FloraHolland locations, there are a total of 35 auction clocks running each day, selling more than 30 million flowers and plants per day.
The auction clocks were invented in the Netherlands in 1902. An auction clock looks like an ordinary clock face. There are numbers from 0 to 99 around the outside edge. The clocks nowadays do not have any hands but are projected onto large screens on the wall. The information about the products being auctioned can be read on the clock display. This includes the quantity, the type, the color, the grower’s name, etc. Within just a few hours, the auction sells millions of flowers and plants. Every day, day after day.
An auctioneer works with each clock. He is employed by the auction house and knows all about the flowers and plants, which are sold on this clock. During the auction, he informs the customers about the products, which grower they come from, and the quality. Customers press a number on a keyboard if they want to buy the products. Pressing the number at the right moment (he has to be the first) stops the clock. The number he just pressed is the desired quantity. The clocks are connected to a computer. The computer records which customer has bought which products and for how much.
Buying off the clock is a difficult job. The customer who is the first to press the button buys the products. If you press too soon, then you pay too high a price. But if you are too late, then another customer will walk away with the flowers or plants that you wanted.
The Royal FloraHolland locations make use of image auctioning. An image auction includes all the information about the cut flowers or plants on the projected clocks. The information includes the color, a photo of the product, the grower’s logo, etc. The information on the clocks is reliable and complete enough that the flowers and plants do not need to be displayed physically under the clock. A major benefit of image auctioning is that the flowers and plants can be delivered to the customer directly from the cold storage once they are sold.
Remote Purchases, a.k.a. KOA
The information nowadays is so detailed that customers no longer need to come to the auctions in order to buy products. The customer can follow the clock in the bidding room from their own computer. This type of buying is called remote purchasing, or KOA (Dutch abbreviation for 'Kopen Op Afstand'). A major benefit is that the customer can buy from several auctions at the same time. Remote purchasing can be done from anywhere in the world; even though you may be in Spain, Scandinavia, Italy, or the USA, you can just buy products in the Netherlands while sitting at your desk.
For the grower, every day presents a new challenge to see at what price his products are sold.
The price can be different every day. If there is a lot of demand for flowers and plants, the price will be high. Around St. Valentine’s Day, for example, red roses are in high demand by customers. This can lead to significantly rising prices. But if there is a large supply of flowers and plants, the price can lower again.
For example, if the weather is good for several days in a row, flowers and plants will flower more quickly. The grower then has a lot of flowers and plants that are 'ripe' for sale. This means there is a much wider choice of flowers at the auction, which means in turn that the customers bid lower prices than usual.
Spring is always the busiest time at Royal FloraHolland. Particularly in the run-up to special days like Valentine’s Day, International Women's Day, and the various Mother’s Days, a lot of flowers are sold. And plants for the garden also sell well in the spring.
What Happens After the Auction?
After the flowers and plants are bought in the auction room, the products are delivered to the customers. The products go on the conveyor belt to the distribution hall. Each customer has their own number, the number is also stuck on the empty auction cart that is ready and waiting. The distribution staff wears headphones. A computerized voice message tells them over their headphones, which empty auction cart they need to drive to and how many buckets the customer with this auction cart has bought.
Some customers have their own packing rooms on the auction site, which are known as a 'box'. A tractor driver takes the flowers and plants to the box. Other customers come to the auction with their own car with a trailer or a truck. They load up the purchased products themselves.
As soon as the products are sold, they go into a large hangar, the distribution hall. The auction carts are moved around the auction center using electric tractor units. These vehicles are powered by electricity so that the employees of the auction center are not exposed to exhaust fumes - and neither are the flowers and plants! The Royal FloraHolland distribution staff make sure that the products reach the customer who purchased them as soon as possible. This may be a customer who will resell the flowers and plants to foreign companies (an exporter), a customer who sells to Dutch companies (a wholesaler), or a florist who sells the flowers and plants through their own shop to you, the consumer.
Did you know every auction day buses full of tourists arrive at the Aalsmeer flower auction for a touristic tour to witness the clock and distribution process? There is a walking gallery above the work floor to see it all in progress.
Once all the flowers and plants that were sold have been delivered to the customers, the auction center is empty again. Then everything gets cleaned. Not just the bidding rooms and the halls, but also the auction trolleys are cleaned. At the auction center, there is a special washroom to give the flower buckets and cases a good wash. The flower buckets of course need to be thoroughly cleaned before they are once again filled with newly arrived flowers from growers. The auction rooms are not left idle after the auction, distribution, and cleaning. In the afternoon and evenings, growers arrive again at the auction center to deliver their products. These products will be auctioned the following morning, early, once more.
Once the flowers and plants have reached the wholesaler safely, then their final destination is one step closer, namely a vase or a flowerpot in your home. Some customers rent space in the auction buildings where they process the flowers and plants, for example, to create beautiful bouquets. Other customers load the products they have bought into their own vans or trucks and drive them to their own shops.
Most of the flowers and plants purchased at Royal FloraHolland do not remain in the Netherlands. These products travel abroad by truck, plane, and train or by sea. The principal destinations are Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and Belgium.
All Around the World the Same Day
Around eighty percent of all the flowers and plants that are bought at Royal FloraHolland, go abroad. The major countries to which they are exported are Germany, England, Belgium, and France. Eastern European countries are becoming more important, for example, the Czech Republic and Poland.
In Europe, flowers and plants are mainly transported by truck. For destinations outside Europe, the flowers may, for example, be transported by plane through Schiphol Airport. Within a day, the flowers and plants are for sale in shops all around the world.
Another form of transport is by sea. The flowers and plants are stored in large sea-going containers. They are carried around the entire world in large vessels. This form of transport is becoming more and more frequent, especially for importing flowers into the Netherlands. Another mode of transport is by railway. The products are transported in refrigerated containers.
The same afternoon, some of the flowers and plants will already be in flower shops, garden centers, supermarkets, and DIY stores. For overseas destinations, a bit more time may be needed. The shop is the last chain in the link before the products arrive in the consumers’ hands. This cycle is repeated every day, year in and year out...
Did You Know That...
- Every working day a good 30 million flowers and plants are sold at Royal FloraHolland.
- Around 60 percent of the global trade in flowers and plants passes through Dutch auctions. In the Netherlands, around 95 percent of all flowers and plants are sold by Royal FloraHolland.
- The auctions in the Netherlands use a total of 12 million flower buckets, 5.5 million plant trays, and 800,000 flower cartons.
- The cold storage in the Aalsmeer site is larger than all the freezers and fridges in the whole of Aalsmeer.
- There are at least 25,000 different flowers and plants. And every year another 1,200 – 1,500 new products are added. Some varieties also disappear.
- Now and again, exotic animals are found in the flowers and plants that arrive from abroad. For example, a tarantula was found once, a poisonous tree frog, a 12-centimeter-long grasshopper, and a lizard. When this happens, the auction site calls for an animal ambulance to come and pick up the animals. The animal ambulance people then find a good home for the exotic animals.
- Flowers and plants also often have a symbolic meaning. The branch of an olive tree represents peace and reconciliation. A blue violet stands for hope. Red roses signify love. The lily is the symbol of innocence.
- Anyone who thinks of the Netherlands thinks of windmills, clogs, cheese, and... tulips. But did you know that tulips do not really come from the Netherlands at all? They originally came from Turkey. The tulip arrived in the Netherlands in the 16th century. Tulips have always been popular flowers. Around 1600-1637 there was even an outbreak of 'Tulip Mania'. Bulbs changed hands for extremely high prices. The most expensive bulb could buy you a house at one of the Amsterdam canals in those days. In 2009, FloraHolland auctioned 1.5 billion tulips.
- The oldest products that Royal FloraHolland sells are bonsai trees. When Royal FloraHolland sells them, they can be as old as 50 or 60 years.
- The youngest product that is sold at auction is the iris. This flower is ready for auction after just four weeks in the glasshouse.
- The Naaldwijk and Aalsmeer sites have their own fire brigade with a fire engine.
Now you know a lot about the auctions, but once you see it for yourself, it all becomes much clearer, of course. You are welcome to visit! The visitor centers at the three auctions are open in the morning. If you want to see a lot, you will need to arrive very early. View the Royal FloraHolland website for information about opening hours.