Valentine's Day is anything but a bed of roses for florists and growers. By Caroline Donald
A dozen "first reds" - long-stemmed, long-living, richly coloured and scented roses - have always been considered a sure-fire way to make a gal swoon on Valentine's Day. But, a word of warning to would-be romantics: a stiff drink would be advised, to avoid swooning when ordering. They can cost up to pounds 80, with prices going up by at least a third from the fortnight before.

Which may explain why roses are drooping in popularity, or perhaps its because they are seen as the corny option. Claire Woods, manager of Jane Packer, one of London's most glamorous florists, has noticed that there is an increasing demand for bouquets of mixed flowers. "I've had some guys ringing me up saying their girlfriends have told them they don't want roses, and have stipulated exactly what they do want," she says.

Louise Farnham, who runs Garlic & Sapphire, a floral delivery business in central London, has also found that people want a change from tradition, so she supplies bunches of mixed spring flowers and foliage such as rosemary and berried ivy, with tongue-in-cheek names such as Red Hot or Unrequited, as well as roses. "People don't understand it when I say I don't make much money, but they don't realises that the flowers I buy from the market are expensive. Though of course, it depends on the season."

There's the rub. Roses grown naturally in the northern hemisphere are not meant to bloom in February and now that the popularity of Valentine's Day is on the increase outside English-speaking countries, the demand is pressing heavily on the traditional Dutch supplier.

"It is in people's minds that they should buy red roses but other flowers are cheaper and better value," says Cornelius Schrama, of Kurt Schrama Bloemen, based near Aalsmeer in Holland, the centre of the world flower trade. Schrama is one of the 10,000 people who works at Aalsmeer, and his company buys flowers "off the clock", an automated form of auction: the first person to press the button on a clock showing a descending price gets the lot. He supplies buyers in 15 countries, as far afield as Latvia and the Lebanon but 14 February is almost more trouble than it is worth.

Last year, says Schrama, the prices at auction were "crazy". Roses were costing pounds 3 a stem and "We were happy to get out of the day without making losses. It would be good for everyone in the trade if it were not only red roses, or if Valentine's Day were to be in June. It is so difficult to get the quality that you want at reasonable prices."

Vilhelm Visser is a Dutch rose grower who sends 100,000 roses a week to Aalsmeer. Visser admits to hoiking up the prices for first reds at Aalsmeer for Valentine's Day "because everyone wants them". They are grown inside in controlled conditions, with artificial light being switched on in September and not switched off again until April. But, says Visser, there is increasing competition from countries such as Kenya, and "every year the prices of our roses is coming down. It is very hard competition as they have very low labour and energy costs."

Hugh Ellis is stand manager at C M Grover Ltd, which sells wholesale flowers at New Covent Garden Market in south London. Some of the wholesalers buy directly from suppliers, but he buys strictly through Schrama, to ensure a high quality. "The majority of our flowers are Dutch-grown," says Ellis, "purchased at Aalsmeer, then transported through the Channel Tunnel in refrigerated lorries, which means that flowers bought in the morning in Holland are in New Covent Garden before midnight."

Last year, Grover's shifted 28,000 stems of red roses for Valentine's Day. "My body is still recovering," says Ellis, though he does notice that there is a shift to mixed bouquets. He predicts that the wholesale price of a first red will probably double to about pounds 2 a stem by Monday, though, like Schrama, he denies that his company will be making a vast profit. "If anything, we work on tighter price margins than in the rest of the year, in order to maintain a sensible price."

Who is it, then, who profits from the inflated prices? The growers admit to putting them up, but, if they are to be believed, the middle men, who get the flowers into the shops, are working on slim margins just to get the things there and keep everybody sweet. So, one must look to the florists.

At Jane Packer, Claire Woods says that "Valentine's Day is one of the busiest days of the year for us. It is one of the times for us to make money because of the demand for flowers," though, she adds: "If we had our say, we would sell them at normal prices, but it is the growers and suppliers who put the prices up. Most florists can't buy in large enough blocks to negotiate prices."

With anyone who can jumping on the Valentine's bandwagon, it must boil down to quality: you get what you pay for. Yes, a bunch of roses bought at the traffic lights for pounds 3 may seem a tremendous bargain, but it is likely that they have been cut a couple of months previously and then kept in frozen storage. As a result, they will have no scent, the buds will not open and will probably flop within hours of putting them in water.

"We buy specifically from Holland and Colombia, as we know these have been cut in the week before Valentine's Day," says Woods. "The Colombian supplier has a ship coming in every week, with some of the best roses you can buy. They have huge heads, like a tulip."

Jane Packer has 1,700 red rose stems coming in for the big day (as opposed to an average 100 a week) - even then "last year we sold out at lunchtime," says Woods. Multiply that across Europe (Interflora has 3,000 members in Britain alone), and anywhere else that chooses 14 February to show an annual outburst of romance, and it is amazing that there enough roses in the world to satisfy demand, let alone long-stemmed beauties. Time to leave the pack. A bunch of parrot tulips for me, please and, hopefully, there will be enough left for dinner a deux.