Border inspectors ensure a sweetheart’s flowers are pest-free

Roses for your Valentine's sweetheart
Roses for your Valentine's sweetheart Marice Cohn Band / Miami Herald

Days before the most romantic holiday of the year, the temperature in the chilled warehouse hovers at 57 degrees as sharp-eyed specialists inspect the tables of flowers and plants that will eventually become Valentine’s Day bouquets and arrangements.

The specialists stand behind long tables piled with cartons of palms, chrysanthemum and long-stem roses in a rainbow of hues, from deep red to pale peach to white.

They open the cartons, grab the bunches by the stems, turn them upside down and give them a pat. Dirt and the occasional bug shakes loose – the ritual of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection in the pre-rush of the holiday in Miami, which ranks first among U.S. ports of entry for shipments of cut flower imports.

“I am looking for anything that can come in and cause harm,’’ says U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agriculture specialist William Oldrup, as he leans in to examine the debris that fell from a bunch of palm fronds from Guatemala.

Oldrup is among those on the front lines in the fight against the entry of harmful insects and diseases into the United States from grower countries including Columbia, Ecuador, Mexico and the Netherlands. An army of 2,300 specialists across the nation – many based in Miami -- conduct inspections to spot pests and traces of disease, ranging from thrips and aphids to fungi.

They work in 23 chilled warehouse within a five mile radius of Miami International Airport. At this time of the year, the shipments are mostly roses and chrysanthemum, arriving by air carriers.

Last year, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection processed approximately 802.5 million cut flower stems during the Valentine’s Day six-week season from Jan. 1 to February 14., compared to 320.8 million stems processed in 2010. The 2012 number is expected to stay about this same as last year.

The inspection process last year netted a total of 3,404 pest, of which almost half were detected in Miami.

Once spotted, they are dropped in a vial and sent to the Department of Agriculture for identification. The agency can order the flower or plant to be destroyed, returned or treated.

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