Hope in Hydrangeas
When Juan Manuel Uribe Palacio lost his cattle from Colombia’s armed conflict, he planted flowers. Fifteen years later, the co-owner of Colombian hydrangea farm American Flowers now employs 82, instead of just two, employees. Although Uribe misses working with his livestock, he is grateful that amid waves of political and military unrest, this flower has created new jobs and allowed his family to continue working in agriculture.
Hydrangeas are an ornamental flower with an iconic “snowball”-shaped head of blooms; they are the second-most-planted flower in Colombia, trailing only the rose. In 2019, according to the Association of Colombian Flower Exporters (Asocolflores), 81 percent of the country’s hydrangeas were exported to the United States. The next most significant destinations for Colombian hydrangeas were Canada, the Netherlands, Japan and Korea.
In North America, hydrangeas are commonly used in weddings and to celebrate Mother’s Day. In Asia, the hydrangea is a popular accompaniment to religious ceremonies.
Hydrangea farmer Mónica Gutiérrez Rodríguez says, “The rose is the flower of conquest, but the hydrangea is a flower that symbolizes humility, spirituality and family.”
Unlike other flowers such as carnations, chrysanthemums or roses — which require costly start-up costs, such as a greenhouse — the hydrangea will bloom outside year-round. Hydrangeas are harvested by hand and can even be grown on mountainous plots of land. With just 1.2 acres (0.5 hectares), a well-managed family farm can benefit from Colombia’s highly competitive cut-flower industry.
Due to favorable climatic and soil conditions, 99 percent of Colombian hydrangeas are grown in the northwestern department of Antioquia. Much has changed since the times when Antioquia was known as one of the most dangerous regions of the country; famed drug lord Pablo Escobar was based in regional capital Medellín.
According to Magda Milena Palacio, lead agronomist for the Colombian Institute of Agriculture’s Antioquia ornamental flowers project, “the hydrangea gave another possibility after the conflict. You can’t eat a hydrangea,” she says, and unlike livestock, “it is more difficult to steal.”
The town of La Ceja, just 25 miles from Medellín, was once a dangerous area for even agronomists to pass through while making routine visits to flower farms. Now, the region is calm.
“The hydrangea gave producers the possibility to set down their arms and offered the agricultural sector a new chance to come to life,” Palacio says. “The hydrangea helped generate prosperity and hope. The hydrangea gives life to Antioquia.”
“The Colombian flower sector was perhaps the first sector in Colombia that was affected by the coronavirus crisis,” says Augusto Solano, executive president of Asocolflores. As soon as the virus appeared in China, and progressed across Europe, country after country began to cancel orders.
The first action Asocolflores took was to coordinate with local authorities and enact strict safety and hygiene measures along the entire supply chain, from the fields to the factories to international transport. While the cancellation of events and weddings has been a significant cause of decreased demand for cut flowers, the strong link between the United States and Colombian floriculture has been a positive connection for the industry. Solano explains: “Fortunately, supermarkets in the United States have maintained permanent activity; not high, but [sales] have been active.”
While this is a difficult time for flower producers, Solano reminds consumers that “flowers help combat stress” and, as homes have become home offices, flowers “are a source of calm, attract energy and bring well-being.” And, he says, supporting floriculture supports workers. The Colombian cut-flower industry, including hydrangeas, generates work for 150,000 people in Colombia, the majority of whom are women who are the head of the household.
This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation as part of its Adelante Latin American Reporting Initiative.