Gaping warehouses. Diesel trucks. Screaming jets.
A rugged industrial zone is about as far removed from the romanticism of flowers as possible, but the touchy feely part of giving flowers requires the gritty area around Miami's main airport.
"We are in the center of the flower world," said Christine Boldt, executive vice president of the Association of Floral Importers of Florida.
Boldt, whose family imported flowers for decades, represents the many companies that trade millions of flowers every single day.
"Eighty-nine percent of all the flowers that come into the United States come through Miami International Airport," she said.
The crowded streets are lined with two things: palm trees and warehouses. And inside those warehouses exists a nonstop machine that imports flowers from South America, then turns them around to all 50 states – often within just a day or two.
"It's a lot of steps," Boldt said.
Boldt agreed to give us a behind the scenes tour of her profession, a 7,000-employee industry that operates largely in the shadows.
It's like clockwork. Huge cargo jets pull in each and every morning around 4 a.m. The planes are full of flowers, just picked from farms in Colombia and Ecuador.
Most ship the same day.
The stems arrive in boxes, stacked eight to ten feet tall. In a refrigerated warehouse that sits directly next to the airport taxiway, workers remove and sort the boxes.
The shuffle is quick and constant. After all, this cargo is (as the boxes describe) highly perishable.
"So it has to move very quickly," Boldt said.
From here, the sorted boxes rush by truck. And many go to Rio.
Rio Roses is the kind of business that's totally unassuming, yet enjoys a hugely important role in holidays like Christmas, Valentine's Day, and Mother's Day.
"There is so much work behind what we do," said Rio's Victor Giorgini. "It is incredible."
A short drive from the cargo hangar, Rio unloads thousands of fresh stems. Rio then coordinates shipments to as many as five thousand florists and flower retailers nationwide.
The first step here is quality control, Giorgini says.
With exacting guidelines, weights, and measurements posted on the wall, technicians inspect each import to ensure it meets Rio's specifications.
If there's a problem, Miami connects immediately with the grower by webcam.
"High definition," Giorgini boasts.
A few steps away from the frigid warehouse there's a completely unexpected part of the flower business—the room that looks like it could be at Goldman Sachs in New York.
"It's sort of like the stock market," Giorgini says, explaining that flowers are a commodity, and that beautiful flowers trade exactly the same as ugly oil: by supply and demand. So, his staff is constantly monitoring prices in real-time via wall-mounted plasma screens. The varieties and prices are lined up just like a ticker.
"It's all real time," he said. "I don't go to Vegas. I roll the dice every single day in this business."
A few miles away, USA Bouquet Company has an army at work.
"We're around 500 employees," said USA's Scott Hill. The facility is ant pile of activity. In every direction and on every square inch, conveyors are flying, people are toiling, and raw flowers are transforming into ready-to-sell arrangements.
"It's crazy," Hill said.
It is, perhaps, the most colorful and best smelling assembly line in the country. (It's also chilly to keep the flowers fresh.) USA Bouquets produces bunches and bouquets en mass, for clients such as grocery stories, convenience stores, drug stores, box stores, Hill said.
Some of the flowers were cut in Ecuador or Colombia just yesterday, yet Hill said they will be on their way to stores and on the shelf tomorrow.
"48 to 36 hours," he said. "We got to move it!"
You won't find too many computers doing the work. People are building the arrangements, one stem at a time.
"There are no machines that can do what we do," he said.
BILLION… "WITH A B"
All told, the floral industry in Miami ships five billion stems a year.
"Billion," Boldt emphasizes. "With a B."
There's a sense of pride in her voice. Boldt's been doing this her whole life, and is eager to share the backstage action that plays such an important role in some of the most memorable days of our lives.
"Flowers are 365 days a year," she said.