Flowering clones

While scientists and politicians debate the merits of "genetic engineering," flower growers in Holland are busy turning out clones. Reproducing "perfect" plants from their cells rather than their seeds is still a small part of the Netherlands' over $1 billion export business, as scientists continue to test new varieties.

Cloned flowers are gaining attention here, where land must be reclaimed from the sea and limits are needed on energy for greenhouses. By ensuring consistent quality, the flawless cloned plants can fetch top dollar (or Dutch guilder) at auctions.

The flowers are cloned, says an official of Honselersdijk's cooperative central Westland Cut Flower Auction, by taking cells from most desired plants and growing them in pots of special stones that allow the roots to expand rapidly and the plants to grow faster.

The difference between cloned and noncloned plants is obvious. At a flower grower near The Hague, one greenhouse is full of anthurium plants which have all the variances of nature -- the wide green leaves are irregular and the glossy petal are shades of red or yellow, each a bit different.

The other greenhouse, however, presents an eerie contrast. Standing at almost military attention are rows of identical anthurium plants. Each flower is just as tall as the next. Each has the same number of leaves. The red of each petal is exactly the same hue and exactly the same size. The only difference is a matter of age, with the more mature flowers being bigger.

While such cloning methods may appear to be a "brave new world" of flowers, there are cold financial reasons for this new practice.

Some three-quarters of the more than $1 billion of flowers, potted plants, and bulbs exported from the Netherlands are sold through 12 auctions throughout the country.

Each transaction, which takes about five seconds, requires fast decisions about quality. Nature may like variety, but buyers at high-speed computer-controlled autions prefer uniformity.

he largest auction is in Aalmeer, outside Amsterdam. The auction at Honselersdijk, in the heart of the Westland greenhouse (or glasshouse) district, is the second largest, but it still moves several million flowers a day.

Between them, the sales at Aalsmeer and Honselersdijk account for about 75 percent of flowers sold at auction in Holland.

The larger auctions require buyers to gather in theaterlike rooms, seated at long rows of desks. Every desk is equipped with rows of buttons and a device for listening to a person on the "stage" below describe the contents of each cart of flowers as it rolls by.

After hearing a description and making a visual judgment -- sometimes from more than 100 feet away -- the buyer presses a numbered button in front of him, indicating how many boxes or batches he wants to buy.

When the button is pressed, it stops a giant "clock" with a single hand that indicates how much will be paid for this particular bunch. The rim around the clock is numbered from 100 to 0, and the further the hand moves around the face before it is stopped, the lower the price that is paid for the flowers. A computer is used to tell who pushed their button first and the highest bidder wins the batch.

The bulk of the flowers sold at Aalsmeer and Honselersdijk are exported to Western Europe, particularly West Germany. But a growing number of plants are being loaded aboard jets for quick trips to the United States. In this market, auction officials note, Holland faces some competition from Israel, which is also becoming a growing floral presence in the US.

But instead of selling the same flowers in the US at the same time, the Dutch flower growers are trying to coordinate their seasonal offerings, shipping flowers that are out-of-season in Israel, while Israeli growers ship the flowers the Dutch are not yet ready to sell.

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