The world's biggest flower auction was abuzz this week as hardnosed buyers vied in the Dutch town of Aalsmeer over 150 million blooms destined to warm lovers' hearts worldwide this Valentine's Day.
"Alongside Mother's Day, the week of Valentine's Day is the most important week of the year for us," commercial director Albert Haasnoot of Aalsmeer, dubbed the Wall Street of Roses, told AFP amid the hubbub leading up to February 14.
Around him, hundreds of traders were doing brisk business in the million-square-metre auction building, taking their eyes off their computers only to glance up at the giant trading screens.
A flood of information flashes past the screens like on any trading floor: variety, quality, price per stem - while roses, tulips and chrysanthemums in a dazzling array of colours await transportation in vast, cooled storerooms.
Aalsmeer, south of the capital Amsterdam, has more than 800 varieties of roses alone. The flowers sold here are grown mainly in the Netherlands, but also imported from Kenya, Ethiopia and Israel.
"Our sales have risen to 35 million euros (48 million dollars) for the week, about 50 to 60 percent higher than normal," Haasnoot said as rising demand in the days leading up to Valentine's Day caused prices to skyrocket.
A batch of Red Naomi; large, red roses, had just sold on the floor for 1.70 euros per stem.
"Red roses can be two or three times more expensive" at this time of year, said exporter Alexander Brussee, who comes to Aalsmeer to buy flowers for resale to florists and wholesalers, mostly around Paris.
Following on a tough year on account of the global economic crisis, Valentine's Day couldn't have come at a better time for the flower sector.
"People are a lot more careful with their money," complained Brussee.
About 80 percent of the flowers at Aalsmeer, of which red and pink varieties are the most popular at the moment, are destined for abroad, mainly for Germany, Britain and France.
But local flower sellers are clients too. Aalsmeer florist Michelle van der Linden has just bought 600 red roses.
"Everyone wants red roses for Valentine's Day," she said. "It is the colour of love, of passion."
During the course of the week, more than 50,000 trucks will depart from Aalsmeer with their precious cargo.
The Netherlands is the world's biggest flower exporter, with sales of flowers, bulbs and trees contributing about 35 percent to the Netherlands' trade surplus in 2008.
Greenhouses cover an area of more than 60 square kilometres (24 square miles) in the small country, and more than a billion tulip bulbs are exported each year.
The Dutch tulip mania of the early 1600s is often said to have been the world's first recorded speculative economic bubble.
A total of 300 million flowers are expected to be sold in the week leading up to Valentine's Day in the six centres of the FloraHolland auction company, of which Aalsmeer is one.