Ecuador has long been a major exporter of colorful flowers, pleasing to both the eye and nose. Now its farmers are exploring a new idea — roses you can eat.
Restaurants from New York to Barcelona, looking to attract customers with novelty dishes, have started to serve food containing organic rose petals grown on farms like Roberto Nevado’s in Ecuador’s central highlands.
Nevado is a sprightly septuagenarian who moved here from his native Spain to start a plantation in the perfect rose-growing conditions offered by this part of the country. His farm now has three million bushes under cultivation, though only 100,000 are grown without pesticides and meant for eating.
“We believe the market will grow,” he said over lunch at his plantation featuring starters, main dishes and desserts containing red, pink and white rose petals that left a bitter-sweet sensation on the palate.
“It’s new, it’s interesting, and that’s what everyone wants,” Nevado said, his green eyes flashing as he rolled a dollop of passion fruit mousse over his tongue, crushed rose petals adding a tangy juxtaposition to the sweetness.
A mechanical engineer by training, Nevado started growing organic roses four years ago as part of the “going green” trend in business.
“They are the same species as non-edible roses, but the fertilizers have to be organic and no chemicals can be sprayed on them, which means they need more human care,” Nevado said.
Many bugs that can damage roses do not like garlic, he explained, so workers spray garlic solution onto the organic bushes and plant garlic around his edible rose greenhouses.
A long-time rose trader in Europe, Nevado came here 12 years ago, attracted by the South American country’s high altitudes and position on the equator, conditions that provide the intense sunlight needed to grow the best roses.
His farms stand about 2,800m above sea level. He has 500 employees and ships 20 million stems a year. Edible petals are a tiny part of his business, for now.
Restaurants such as Per Se in New York, Zazu in Quito and El Bulli near Barcelona have started experimenting with rose petal dishes and desserts such as “Rose Souffle.”
“The waiters sometimes have to explain that we did not just pull these roses out of the flower vase, that they are grown especially for eating,” said Zazu assistant chef Daniel Pillon, a Brazilian with a reassuring smile.
Ecuador’s flower industry has bloomed since the signing of the 1991 Andean Trade Preferences Act, which lowers trade barriers for countries in the region that help Washington fight drug trafficking.
Ecuador’s flower exports were worth US$600 million last year. The industry has been growing by about 13 percent annually and now accounts for 2 percent of GDP.
About 100,000 people are employed directly and indirectly by the flower industry, a substantial number for a nation with a population of only 14 million. Edible roses currently account for only about 1 percent of flower exports.
“Every type of new market, even small boutique markets such as this one, can help promote Ecuadorean flowers in general and help the industry grow,” said Ignacio Perez, head of the Expoflores growers’ association.
He and other experts here say they know of no other country exporting edible roses, which offer nutritional benefits such as calcium and vitamin C.