By Alyson Penn
“Tell me, what is your favorite brand of watches? Your favorite brand of chocolate? Your favorite brand of champagne?”
“Now, what is your favorite brand of roses?”
It is with these questions that Alejandro Henao piqued my interest when introducing me to Sisaluna, his direct-order Ecuadorian rose company, which officially launched in the U.S. in 2015. Expecting my stunted response, he goes on to explain that there simply are no branded roses. At least, until now.
“What we want is to make our clients proud to buy our Sisaluna roses,” Henao said. “So tomorrow, when somebody gives you roses, they’re not giving you roses, they’re give you Sisaluna roses, right? There’s a whole concept, but we want to back it up with a social commitment and responsibility.”
Three years ago, Henao and his business partner, Luis Armendaris, came up with the idea of starting their own farm-direct, socially and economically responsible rose company in their hometown of Quito. Looking to partner with a Ecuadorian charity, the friends collaborated with People Helping People Ecuador (PHP), an American-based organization that is dedicated to the welfare of people of the Andean region.
“We’ve been asked before to attach our names to things and we’ve always said ‘no,'” said Bonnie Lunt, director of PHP Ecuador. “What I said to them was that I needed to see the plantation. I was really grateful when I saw it and it was green, and they didn’t use harsh chemicals or children. This plantation was like a breath of fresh air for us. It’s a win-win for all of us.”
Sisaluna plans to become the first e-commerce flower firm that is “seriously committed” to its surrounding communities, with part of its proceeds going directly to PHP, which has built schools and health-care centers in the region. Additionally, Henao says the company’s farms comply with all the local and international regulations regarding chemicals and labor — there are no child workers and 72% of employees are single moms.
Sisaluna prides itself on a top-quality product. Henao explained that Ecuador’s diverse ecology and location in the Andes at 10,000-feet above sea level allows for a superior rose — the world’s best.
The company also cuts its roses later in their lives than many Ecuadorian rose growers who cater to the American market, which means they last anywhere from 10 to 15 days, compared to an average of 4 to 6 days for flowers that are cut earlier.
It’s known as the Russian style of growing and cutting roses. “The Russians love roses,” said Lunt. “Americans believe the rose has to be cut early and at the bud stage. But if you wait until the rose is opened a little bit further, the rose is stronger and it lasts longer.”
But immaculate care and quality doesn’t exactly come cheap. Sisaluna sells its roses in bundles of 50 for $175, including 5-6 day shipping (they are only available by direct order on Sisaluna’s website, and delivered by UPS).
That may seem steep compared to two-dozen-for-$15 deals at the corner bodegas of New York City, but compared to other direct-order businesses like 1-800-Flowers which charges more than $250 for two dozen of their “best” roses — it doesn’t seem so unreasonable after all. This is, in part, because Sisaluna cuts out the middle man, selling directly to consumers.
And those bodega flowers never last more than a day or two.
Sisaluna goes to serious lengths to ensure its quality. “The security at these plantations is intense; you have to be screened really carefully,” said Lunt. “Also, a lot of these plantations have secret hybrid roses that they’re processing. They’re very careful not to let anybody near those buildings because they’re terrified of any kind of germs or diseases. Just one bad bacteria can wipe out a whole plantation, and that’s happened before.”
The company’s commitment to abide by child labor laws is also a major step. In 2012, The Atlantic reported that around one in a dozen stems sold in the U.S. were cut by child laborers in Ecuador, which supplies the bulk of America’s long-stem roses. The Atlantic also cited a 2000 report claiming that 80% of the workers in Ecuador’s flower industry were children.
“We want to break that label that the floral culture industry has — that they use pesticides, that they go against the environment, that they hire kids, that they don’t pay for incomes,” said Henao.
Henao said he eventually hopes to revolutionize the whole culture surrounding roses. While he initially expects surges in orders around Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, he predicted the demand would eventually stabilize as flower fans re-order year-round. He forecasts that the company will sell around 700 boxes, or 35,000 roses, a month.
“Sisalunas are roses that enhance your world, your life, and make you happy and proud that you’re buying the best roses in the world,” says Haneo.”That’s our slogan.”