Sharon McGukin

Smithers-Oasis North America Design Director Sharon McGukin, AIFD, AAF, PFCI enjoys sharing floral tips and techniques for celebrating life with flowers.

We see a bouquet and think, "Isn't that pretty?" says Paul Miller AIFD, PFCI, of Sunshine Bouquet. “We don't realize how much work goes into each bloom.” 

As designers, we enjoy working with beautiful blooms. There's a lot of hard work that goes into those flowers before they reach us.

It’s an amazing flower journey from the ground, through processing and then leaving Columbia or Ecuador on a jet headed for the US.
How do South American blooms end up in the beautiful bouquets that we enjoy in North America?

Photos: Paul Miller AIFD, PFCI

Paul shares with us the story of today’s farms and people that produce 3,200 acres of flowers yearly.

Sunshine Bouquet employs over 30,000 in five US offices and facilities, and 56 farms in Columbia and Ecuador. Sunshine Bouquet sells primarily to mass market. Esmeralda, a subsidiary of Sunshine, sells to wholesalers. In 1995, when Paul started visiting Columbian farms they grew basic flowers - roses, mums, and carnations. Times have changed and the company has grown tremendously. Now, they grow over 500 different varieties of species and flowers. Different farming elevations are used. Certain flowers grow better in specific areas. Specimens from the same mother plant might be planted in two different areas, resulting in a variation of color.
“People think it's hot and tropical, but that's not the part of Columbia where we grow flowers. We’re up in the mountains,” explains Paul. The Columbia, Bogota and Savannah farms experience about the same temperature 365 days a year. A comfortable 50 to 70-degree temperatures each day, with the need for a jacket when the sun goes down. The temperate mountain climate, closer to the sun, allows rose blooms to grow large with strong stems. Sunshine grows 951 acres of roses between the two countries.
After 50 years in the floral industry, Paul admits he should be thinking of retirement, but still feels an amazing passion for petals. “I love my job. I'm the luckiest man in the world because I get to do what I love." He especially enjoys creating recipes, bouquets, and collections for customers. He takes into consideration trend, season, stem, availability, and price point. Paul might make one bouquet of 25 stems, but the on-site designers multiply those numbers by making 5,000 of that sample bouquet. On an average, there are about 1200 designers hand-tying menued Dutch-styled spirals every day.

The Greenhouse Collection

In both Spanish and English, The greenhouse collection introduces the process of growing six flowers. Paul is currently working on a 2024 collection. If a customer decides they want a specific collection a year out, the farm can usually plant for them. "Some flowers like roses, alstroemeria, gerbera are a five to 10-year plant. Other flowers you plant, pull out, and that's the end." Mums and lilies are a one-time flower.
“The countries are absolutely beautiful, but being in the greenhouse is one of the most exciting things,” Paul continues. “There's always people working in there, and they have for a passion for what they do.” There’s a different agronomist for each farm and each flower. They are extremely knowledgeable about their particular flower. There is a science and a process to everything.

How many blooms are in one row? How often will this plant will bloom? It's all recorded on the end of each row. “They know to expect 40 blooms from that row today, 40 tomorrow,” he explains. They know the exact size each lily bud needs to be for consistent blooms. Buds are cut tight, with no color showing. They’ll be the perfect stage when purchased and long-lasting for consumers.

Photos: Paul Miller AIFD, PFCI

There's a lot of time-consuming tasks we don't think about, like the difference between a stem of spray Chrysanthemum and a stem of disbud. It's the same flower, but a person has to take the extra buds off the disbud so all the energy goes up the single stem to make one large flower. Hence the single flower gets its name - disbud. And, that's just one process.
Think of disbuds with little nets around each bloom. “That doesn’t grow on the plant,” Paul laughs. Each net is placed on a stem two weeks before it's processed and harvested. Two weeks later, another person who knows exactly how big that bloom needs to be comes by. When the bloom is ready they pull the net up on top of it. Another team comes in and harvests the netted blooms. In three days, that field will be totally harvested. It will then be replenished with soil and fertilizer for the next crop. Within a week's time, usually a whole hector can be turned around.
Labeling is another time-consuming process. A paper is placed over certain blooms marked with the date they need to be cut. “It is so amazing to think about how much hard work goes into raising just one blooming flower,” continues Paul. “One time a visitor at the farm was watching the life of a mum from its planting.” It’s usually takes 85 to 90 days to bloom. “He saw the many processes and said, "That mum should be $20 a stem!"

The Life of a Flower

“Let’s walk a bouquet flower through its life after harvest,” suggests Paul. The flower is harvested, processed and hydrated with proper solutions and placed in water. The next morning a design team will include the stem in a bouquet. That afternoon the bouquet will be on a truck to the airport in Bogota or Quito and flown to Miami. The next day it’s put on a truck bound for somewhere in the US or Canada. A fresh bloom can be in a South American field one day and a North American store a few days later.

Photos: Paul Miller AIFD, PFCI

Most South American flowers, come into the US through Miami. If it's from Europe it might go to New York. There are refrigerated coolers in the Customs at the Miami Airport, but Sunshine’s Miami facilities have their own quality control and Customs.

“We're fortunate, we're one of the very few importers to have Customs in our buildings,” says Paul.

Flowers are flown to the US from Columbian and Ecuador daily. The statistics are staggering.
• Two or three full 767 flight charters per day.
• 10,100 full cases of flowers per day.
• 3.5 million stems of flowers per day.
• 1.5 billion flower stems annually.
When it comes to flying flowers, no space is wasted. Boxes are maximized for every stem that can fit in. Pallets are arched just like the side of a plane so they can fit tightly. The pallets are like big cookie sheets. They’re unloaded and easily slid across a moving floor system.
Flower freshness is top priority. When a jet lands, it’s brought directly to the Sunshine facility; a cooled environment of 34 degrees. The boxes are forced with cold air making the inside and outside temperatures the same. This cold chain is maintained through shipping and trucking across the US.
“The reason you need to keep up the cold chain is once you disrupt that, it's almost like waking up in the middle of the night and you've only had two hours of sleep,” Paul explains. “The flowers actually go to sleep, and they need to stay asleep until they're ready to be used.”

Holiday Shipping

Shipping, is probably the biggest problem for most importers during holidays. Sunshine doubles its jet capacity using carriers. For the last few years chartering private jets has been a solution.
• Five to six jets arrive daily.
• Delivering about 6.5 million flower stems per day.

“We try to bring product in early for Valentine's Day. You never know what the weather's going to be.”
“Consumers love flowers and the Covid quarantine enhanced that love.” It’s impressive that during the pandemic, Sunshine Bouquet didn't lay one person off due to Covid.
• They wanted to take care of employees.
• If valuable employees were lost, they might not get them back.
• The farms wouldn't be taken care of if everyone was gone.

“That was great because we were prepared for what happened with sales that year, as well as is continuing to happen,” explains Paul. “We're still seeing flower sales growth in many areas.”

Photos: Paul Miller AIFD, PFCI

Learning to Adjust

Flowers are a perishable product. Almost a gamble. One year a customer one might want 500 of something and the next year they want 1500. It can work the other way too. “It can be difficult to predict, but very rewarding when you get it right,” adds Paul. This knowledge comes through years of experience.
Flowers were once grown seasonally. Now we can grow almost every flower 12 months out of the year. We think of Valentine's Day as red, white, and pink. A new less-traditional generation wants brighter colors, sunflowers, and things that we couldn’t sell 20 years ago. The same for Mother's Day. A new generation of moms want bright vivid flowers.

Chris Norwood AIFD discussed this in our Valentine’s Day Prep podcast. Each generation has its own thoughts regarding color, style and function. He suggests we direct our sales focus toward those preferences.
“It's like fashion, you change with the styles, but even that is not like it was,” Paul suggests. “Now, pretty much anything goes. It is a different world and we have to adjust to it.”