Garden roses are all about beauty and romance, right? But it takes an expert biologist, working year-round with new varieties and growing techniques, to make all that beauty happen.
At Alexandra Farms, that key player is Pilar Buitrago, a plant scientist who has been working at the farm since 2011. Every new variety that is introduced to the farms’ portfolio of opulent garden roses first has to pass muster with Pilar, who will test it over a period of one year to make sure it meets a battery of tough requirements.
Sometimes the candidates come from Alexandra Farms president Jose “Joey” Azout, when he sees a garden rose that he thinks is worth testing. But Pilar also visits rose breeders and selects varieties for testing.
In the end, an Alexandra Farms garden rose has to be not only beautiful in a distinctive way, but capable of performing well at the farm, in transport, and in the hands of florists and consumers around the world.
Drawn to Flowers
A graduate of the Nueva Granada Military University in Bogotá, Pilar considered chemical engineering and medicine as career paths, but in the end chose biology, focusing on research projects relating to floriculture.
After a stint in the region of the Amazon, where she studied a bacterium that was affecting plantains (an important food source for Indigenous people there), Pilar approached Alexandra Farms and proposed herself as a scientific consultant. The rest, as they say, is history.
"Pilar has been great to work with," said Joey Azout. "She has developed great insight into the garden rose market and has been able to manage our trial database containing more than 2,000 garden rose varieties."
What’s the hardest part of her job? “The hardest thing,” she says, laughing a little but showing real regret, “is when I test so many beautiful varieties that don’t get chosen because they don’t fill one of the basic requirements. It’s really sad! You fall in love with a flower, but it doesn’t produce well, or it doesn’t ship well, or it doesn’t have a good enough vase life.”
Conversely, the most fun and satisfying part is finding a new garden rose that joins the family of flowers grown at Alexandra Farms.
A typical day for Pilar begins at 6 a.m., when she visits the greenhouses where new varieties are being tested. “Usually I have between 200 and 300 varieties to evaluate,” she tells. “So, the first thing is to do a quick review of the entire plant.”
Together with an assistant, Venilde, she checks that the plants are healthy and that systems for delivering water and nutrients are working perfectly. If any plants are blooming, she evaluates the shape, color, and fragrance of the flowers or buds.
Next she heads to her office to check email, which might include news from different rose breeders around the world. Her office work also includes maintaining the master data base in which she organizes the results of all her research, relating not only to cultivation but also to postharvest performance.
Working with various advisors and consultants, Pilar herself writes the protocols that govern both production trials and postharvest testing of potential new varieties on site at Alexandra Farms. Some of these trials simulate the rigors of packing and shipping for cut roses on their way to destinations around the world.
“I try to minimize the variables for each trial so as to focus on the hypothesis I want to investigate,” she explains. The overall focus, however, is on finding products or technology to improve flower opening and quality and to extend vase life. “The idea is that with the results obtained at the end of the process, by working with the technical team and management, we can resolve any problems and implement innovative solutions to enhance production, postharvest and packing of our roses.”
Towards evening is when Pilar checks the display of roses in vases where postharvest trials are underway. She makes observations and records data relating to hydration, flower opening and size, fragrance and vase life, along with any mechanical damage or signs of pests or diseases. Photographic monitoring is, of course, part of the process.
All of this testing leads up to the selection of varieties that will go on to the next phase: namely, wider, pre-commercial testing in the real world of production, postharvest processing, packing and shipping.
As a scientist, Pilar also is responsible for sustainable practices at the farms. She routinely conducts internal audits and inspections to ensure compliance with the standards set by environmental legislation and to make sure that all of the necessary procedures are in place to meet or surpass the very strict requirements for certification by Florverde Sustainable Flowers—Colombia’s “green label” that assures environmental and social responsibility. These audits pave the way for the external, third-party audits that are part of the ongoing certification process.
“It’s a team effort,” says Pilar, but she is the leader. She meets with the auditors who come to the farm to renew the certification and answers any questions they may have. The standards are detailed and the bar is set very high. They relate not only to protection of the environment but also to social conditions and labor practices.
Along with protecting the environment, another aspect of sustainability is the social well-being of all the workers and staff at Alexandra Farms. Here, too, Pilar takes an active role, meeting with management to define goals and to check on the progress of programs designed to enhance the welfare of everyone who contributes to the farm, from hot lunches for all to day care for working mothers.
Art and Science
Always reading and studying to keep up with the latest in her field, Pilar also experiments with growing techniques that might help to produce a more perfect rose.
“She is a scientist, but she is also like an artist,” says Pilar’s colleague, sales manager Sandy Saenz. “She is a bit like Mother Nature! Most people don’t see her or know about her, because she works in the background. But in the end nothing at Alexandra Farms happens without Pilar.”