Does true love still blossom on Valentine's Day? Raymond Mgadzah went to watch business at Covent Garden Flower Market
Two giant perspex door-flaps flip ajar and Dave, a lanky man in his mid-twenties, wheels a trolley-load of boxes towards the loading bay. It's 5am and the day's trading at Covent Garden Flower Market in south-west London has been underway for two hours.

"I'm a night-man," mutters Dave. He has been working since midnight, unloading deliveries. When the day's trading started he switched to loading up buyers' vans. The day shift takes over at 6am.

Dave is one of 3,000 people who work in the market, including 300 importers, traders and wholesalers who have offices on the premises.

Lights strapped to beams on the ceiling illuminate 70,000 square feet of trading space. The floor is divided into stands, but the boxes of blooming flowers blur into a colourful maze. Down on the market floor, trade wilted when recession struck, but recently it has blossomed again, boosted in part by surging Valentine's Day sales. Buyers, florists and wholesalers weave through the maze.

A pop tune crackles out of a small radio. There is whistling, laughter and therattle of trolleys. The ventilation system whirs, dispersing mingled scents from lillies, freesia, hyacinths, orchids, roses...

"It's like the stock market," says the florist Judy Pesh. "You've got to keep your eye on all the roses coming in to see which are the best - price, quality, the works."

Another florist, Tom Vach, his tall, lean frame wrapped in a navy blue loden coat and an old Red Army fur hat perched on his head, cuts a dash among the middle-aged traders in casuals. He is on the lookout for Nicole roses from Ecuador - the crme de la crme for Valentine's Day.

According to Angela Henderson of Interflora, we bought 7 million red roses on Valentine's day last year; and our total outlay on flowers that day leapt to £22m, a 12 per cent increase on 1993.

Today, as ever, some romantics will snatch bunches of flowers from a stall for a few pounds, while others may plump for bouquets costing over £1,000 from Harrods. At Harrods, a £110 Valentine's Day wicker hamper comes with rose champagne, chocolates and a love songs compilation on CD.

Nowadays, it isn't just men who are doing the buying. "A lot of young women are keen on sending flowers," says Henderson. "Real men don't eat quiche but they can take a dozen red roses."

Mr Vach stops at a stand to peek at a box of lillies and orders some. Nothing else takes his fancy there, so he sashays through a gap between the boxes and disappears.

The Covent Garden traders moved here in 1974, when the market relocated from central London. Business boomed before the late 1980s slump. In all, annual sales have soared from £15.5m to £80.6m since 1974. In Britain, retail sales have edged above £1bn. But no one's exactly dancing for joy.

Together Mr Moss and his mate Ron have 79 years in the trade. Things are not as good as they used to be, they say. "You had over 600 years of hustle and bustle at the old market in Covent Garden," Mr Moss says. "Here it became a different ball game altogether, more like an industry. It went upmarket, and a lot of people couldn't hack it. The trading changed. The types of flowers changed. Everything changed overnight. People like my father decided to take early retirement."

Today many traders sell at fixed prices agreed by their suppliers, although there is still some face-to-face haggling among traders. The mood is of calm, unexciting efficiency.

Few traders are willing to admit to the wonders of petal-power in matters romantic. Many claim that they don't bother with flowers on Valentine's Day. "It's like taking milk to the milkmaid," says one, while a another grumbles: "I'm getting divorced."

But at one small corner stall, Moss and Son, Bev Moss, 53, says: "I always take a few flowers and plants home. Don't believe that the others don't. They all do because they don't want to get into trouble with the wife."

Two hours after Dave has clocked off, Mr Moss and the other traders begin to wind down. Trading ends at 9am. "It's not an easy life," Mr Moss sighs.

Outside, a receding trolley-rattle is snuffed out as the loading-bay door flips shut.

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