Pandemic sparks a renewed interest in carnations

Dianthus Week in Colombia celebrates carnations’ beauty, colours, shapes, and innovative characteristics. The pandemic saw a global comeback for this flower with showier varieties, vibrant shades, unconventional bloom shapes, and even longer shelf life reviving the carnations’ popularity.

When the commercial trade of cut flowers began, carnations quickly became a staple crop of flower growers in Europe and the USA for many years. It caught on in Colombia in the late 1960s. In fact, from the 1980s through to the 1990s, carnations held a hefty 60 per cent and over of the flower mix.

Carnations picking up

Fig 1. World carnation imports 2012-2020 (figures in USD 1,000s)Source: UN COMTRADE and ITC statistics, 2022. ROW = Rest of the world.

Carnations gained popularity quickly because they could withstand less than perfect marketing conditions while still retaining a decent more than seven-day vase life with the end consumer. They came in a variety of pleasing colours that made them suitable for specific festive occasions. And growers found them relatively easy to grow, even if plant health issues arise. To control severe diseases like fusarium wilt, growers switched from soil to hydroponics or steam to disinfect their soil. In the early days of carnation production, the so-called Sim varieties suffered from calyx splitting. So growers needed to place a rubber band around each bud to cover the split.

Then came improved shipping, packaging and postharvest care technologies allowing exporters to ship cut roses and many other flowers previously considered too short-lived for distant markets, reachable only after many hours of transport. It seemed carnations had fallen out of grace and only retained a presence on the international floriculture stage, as a basic product.

Breeding pushes popularity

Carnation breeders and growers have not been idle over the past several years, and research and development efforts have begun to show very prominently.
Carnations started enjoying an increasing market presence, and popularity grew again with the pandemic and strongly featured this Valentine’s Day. Dianthus Week, held in early March in Colombia, confirmed this trend. The floral industry suddenly seems to have fallen in love again with carnations.

Dianthus Week

Fig 2. Carnation imports – USA (USD 1,000s). Source: UN COMTRADE and ITC statistics, 2022.

Colombia is the unrivalled protagonist of the carnation world. The Dianthus Week event featured showrooms from nine carnation breeders featuring 250 varieties in an astounding diversity of shapes and colours. FCI spoke to breeders and growers and then analysed recent statistics on the international carnation trade to get a clearer picture of what is happening.

“Standard carnations have made a comeback over the last few years,” comments José Mauricio Barrera at Flores Funza, a large carnation producer near Bogotá. “An amazing range of new colours is now available, plus consumers favoured carnations during the pandemic lockdown because they last a long time; these are often flowers for personal and everyday use, not special occasions.”

Camilo Bleier from La Gaitana Farms confirms that demand exceeded supply a few months into the pandemic. He acknowledges that both standard and spray types have become very popular for bouquets.
“With carnations,” he states, “you get your money’s worth: beautiful, long-lasting flowers in a huge variety of colours, for a reasonable price compared to other flowers.”

Breeding in situ

Fig 3. Carnation imports – the Netherlands (USD 1,000s). Source: UN COMTRADE and ITC statistics, 2022.

According to breeders, breeding and selection varieties on the spot, directly in Colombia, have made a difference over the past 15 years. “Thirty years ago, we were only licensed propagators, selling cuttings to carnation growers,” says Rodolfo La Rota from Propagar Plantas. “Today, we select specifically suited varieties for our growing conditions.”

The process can take at least nine years but pays off: split calyxes are unheard of these days, with a vase life of 30 days Propagar Plantas work hard on plant health, meticulously following up on the whole process of cutting production. They offer standard carnations only and can boast some very popular varieties like pink Ikebana and Gitana, an intense red.

Unconventional carnations

Celiar Noreña, from SB Talee, notes, “Over the last decade, we have launched many new varieties onto the market. These novelty flowers include standard and spray carnations and unconventional lines of small-flowered Dianthus used as filler flowers or mono bouquets. These newer varieties originate from a wide range of Dianthus species collected primarily in the Mediterranean region. They are selected and adapted to Colombian growing conditions. These new varieties travel very well, have a long vase life, and are favoured by customers worldwide, including in China, Hungary, Poland, and Romania.

Fig 4. Carnation imports – Japan (USD 1,000s). Source: UN COMTRADE and ITC statistics, 2022.

What about the state of disease management, in particular fusarium wilt? “We still struggle with that,” admits José Mauricio, adding that at Flores Funza, they still use steam within a strict IPM programme to grow a number of susceptible varieties that do well in the market. “We have opted for a shorter growing cycle,” says Celiar, who grows carnations for export sales in addition to breeding. He says, “We switched to hydroponics which largely solves the wilt problem. But hydroponics tremendously encourages Fusarium roseum, capable of causing similar losses to F. oxysporum (fusarium wilt).

International trade in cut carnations

The bulk of international carnation trade rests with a handful of countries, as seen in the figures below. However, according to UN COMTRADE statistics, carnations are reaching every corner of the world, with over 100 countries reporting a minimum of 100,000 USD in imports in 2020.

Five countries account for 70 per cent of global carnation imports: the USA, the Netherlands, Japan, Germany and the UK. Germany and the UK appear to have decreased imports over the last decade; however, they could be sourcing their flowers via the Netherlands. Emerging markets include Poland and Belarus, the latter acting as a transit hub for the Russian market.

Total imports for 2021 have not been fully recorded yet. Initially, they indicate substantial increases in imports from several countries, including key importers such as the USA, UK and the Russian Federation. Germany has reported decreased imports in 2021, which could reflect sourcing via the Netherlands.

Fig 5. Carnation imports – Germany (USD 1,000s). Source: UN COMTRADE and ITC statistics, 2022.

An analysis of the five leading carnation importers provides further insight into where carnations are sourced and how this trade moves. Geographic proximity still prevails: Colombia, Ecuador and Mexico are closest to the US market and sell a large proportion of their product there (Fig 2); Turkey is increasingly accessing the European market via the Netherlands but also reaching Germany and the UK (Figs 1, 3 and 6); China only features as a supplier to Japan (Fig 4). However, Colombia supplies most of the carnations imported by Japan and is present in all importing markets.


About half of the world’s carnation exports come from Colombia, followed by the Netherlands (which, as explained before, is also a large re-exporter).
Other important players are Turkey, China and Ecuador.

Traditional carnation producers in Europe (Spain, Italy) still hold a market share.

A range of other countries, which gained ground up to 2014, has been reduced (Fig 7).

Fig 6. Carnation imports – UK (USD 1,000s). Source: UN COMTRADE and ITC statistics, 2022.

Export data for 2021 are too incomplete at this time to conduct a proper analysis; however, ASOCOLFLORES reports a substantial increase of about 30 per cent.

Not all countries report standard and spray carnations separately, but in the case of Colombia, about 60 per cent of exports are of the standard type, with 40 per cent being spray or miniature carnations.

Fig 7. World carnation exports 2012 – 2020 (USD 1,000s). Source: UN COMTRADE and ITC statistics, 2022.

Also important is to note that the data used here does not reflect carnations used in bouquets, which in the case of Colombia could roughly add another 30 per cent to the total export figures.

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