The Netherlands is famous for its flowers. In fact, nearly two-thirds of the world's flowers pass through this tiny country. The Aalsmeer Flower Auction is where approximately 17 million flowers change hands daily. The auction is held 10 miles outside Amsterdam in an 8.2 million-square-foot building -- the equivalent of 182 football fields -- which makes it not only the world's largest flower auction but also the largest enclosed commercial space.
The night before each working day at the auction, trucks are unloaded and the fresh-cut flowers are refrigerated overnight. At 4:30 a.m. the following day, the flowers are pulled into a collection hall and grouped by variety. Inspectors assess the quality of the flowers and assign each lot a number. Then, the carts are hooked onto a tow chain and pulled into one of the four auction rooms reserved for cut flowers (a fifth room is devoted to potted plants). The auction begins promptly at 6:30 a.m.
The flowers are sold through a process known, appropriately, as a Dutch auction. Unlike American-style auctions, the opening price starts high, not low. Auctioneers announce the flowers that are to be offered, the nursery they came from, the minimum quantity, and any comments from the quality inspector.
The bidding is led by giant clocklike screens with markings representing hundredths, tenths, or fifths of a Dutch guilder; a flashing light on the screen starts at the highest price asked and counts down. Each bidder presses a button in front of his seat when the light hits the amount he is willing to spend. (In a remnant of tradition, the bidders are all men, though some of the auctioneers are women.) The bidders represent mostly flower wholesalers, exporters, and large retailers.
Eighty to 90 percent of purchases are shipped within 24 hours. Refrigerated trucks transport most of those bound for Europe, but flowers for destinations such as America or Asia are sent via air freight. The flowers often arrive in New York the evening they're sold, and wholesalers in the city's Flower District receive them as early as 3:30 a.m.
The variety of flowers sold at Aalsmeer is staggering: Roses account for the highest volume, but carnations, narcissi, calla lilies, Easter lilies, sweet peas, euphorbia, and other species abound.