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Using suitable packaging for exports of floricultural products.

Over 20% of the flowers shipped by growers never reach the final consumer in the export market because they are lost or damaged during the various stages of the distribution chain. Losses can be reduced by ensuring more careful handling, better temperature regulation, attention to phytosanitary requirements and the use of suitable preservation agents. Such measures may be inadequate and even fruitless, however, if not combined with appropriate export packaging. Because flowers and plants are living and thus developing organisms, they have a limited life span. Suitable methods should therefore be adopted to ensure that the product's evolution is controlled throughout the shipping process. The choice of an export package, adapted to the product as well as to the distribution network and the market, is therefore important to export success.

Appropriate for the product

To be correctly adapted to the product, export packaging should have suitable dimensions; means of ventilating, securing and cushioning the product; and any other necessary productive features.

Because of the wide variety of species of flowers that are exported and their very specific characteristics, it is not realistic to attempt a large degree of package standardization in the floriculture sector. Nevertheless the technical and economic advantages of standardization should be kept in mind, and exporters should incorporate the positive features of standardization into their operations.

Suited to distribution

The package and its contents are exposed throughout the export process to a variety of stresses, the cumulative effect of which is to reduce the strength of the package progressively and diminish its ability to protect the product.

These stresses are of two basic types: mechanical, on the one hand, and physical and chemical, on the other.

Mechanical stress:

This is directly connected with transport handling and warehousing. It includes shocks, drops, compression and vibrations.

A distribution chain for flower exports, perhaps several thousand kilometres long, consists not just of one or two transport and handling operations. In most cases the network includes a long series of road, air and sometimes sea or rail transport connections, involving handling before and after each phase, and often with intermediate stages of warehousing or storage.

Consequently the stresses and the risks to which the flowers and their packaging are exposed are multiple. Moreover, the stresses have a cumulative effect, thus significantly reducing the mechanical strength of the package as the journey proceeds. The packaging must therefore be designed to withstand the sum of those forces.

Physical and chemical stresses:

The life span of floricultural products varies with the species, but it is generally short, especially in the case of cut flowers. Foliage and potted plants are much more resistant.

The export packaging design must therefore take into consideration the diverse hazards that the products undergo, to limit their effects. These factors include heat, cold, humidity (water vapour in the air), dampness (water in a liquid state) and desiccation (lack of water or humidity).

The cumulative nature of these stresses on the product has repercussions on package durability. For example, corrugated board is made of fibrous material and consequently has hygroscopic properties. As a result, it absorbs humidity from the air or from the contents, causing, first, a decrease in the carton's mechanical resistance (vertical compression strength in particular) and, second, drying out of the flowers or foliage in the carton.

Adapted to markets

Importing countries differ on their packaging requirements with regard to factors such as package dimensions, arrangement of the products within the container, number of units or bunches, packaging colour and labelling.

For instance, upon receipt of a package of flowers, importers in the Netherlands usually open the box, immerse the flowers in water for several hours to refresh them and then repackage them for the retail market. The original packaging is not kept -- instead, new packaging is used, printed with the importer's brand mark and colours. Under such circumstances, it is probably pointless, and certainly more costly, for exporters to use white liner paper for the corrugated carton in which the flowers are shipped; unbleached liners should suffice.

Another example of differences in packaging requirements relates to roses imported into France. The French market requires that the buds be all the same height within a single bunch. In most other countries the buds are arranged in a graduated pattern. As a result the diameters of the bunches sold in France are larger than those elsewhere, so cartons of flowers destined for the French market will hold fewer bunches than those for other markets.

This factor is important for determining the extent to which cartons are filled, their strength and cost, and the shipping and other costs.

Other functions

In addition to providing protection throughout the export process, packaging performs other important functions, which exporters of floricultural products must bear in mind to maximize their marketing success. These functions include consolidation, adaptation to transport patterns, and identification and presentation.


Consolidation is a principal role of most transport packaging. The export package for floricultural items must be designed rationally (making the best use of available space without overloading or damaging the flowers or foliage) to contain the predetermined number of units of the product or pre-formed bundles. In this way, shipping units that are homogenous and easy to transport, handle and store can be assembled.

Suitability for transport:

The main package features -- materials, dimensions and weight -- should be suited to all of the different types of transport that will be used throughout the export operation.

Since the risk of damage to flowers and foliage increases with the amount of handling, the trend has been to develop unit loads that minimize handling. Palletization is a simple means to achieve this, and its use should be strongly encouraged. Thus the basic dimensions of export packages selected should preferably correspond to those of the pallet, which in turn should have dimensions compatible with transport equipment.

In designing packages suitable for the transport methods, other important considerations for flower and foliage exports are ventilation, air circulation and load height.


Most importing countries have standards or recommendations related to the identification and presentation of floricultural products. Any producer or exporter wishing to engage in international trade must be familiar with these and comply with them in full.

It is commonly said that packaging should function as a "silent salesman." While this rule applies particularly to packaging for consumer goods sold in retail stores, all packaging plays a role in the function of sales promotion, at each stage of the distribution process.

In marketing cut flowers in particular, exporters should strive for an attractive brand image through the use of a simple but striking message that consists of selecting an appealing colour, a suitable appearance of the outer liners, appropriate colours and graphics for the text and illustrations on the carton, and so on. The presentation should be developed at the lowest possible cost and should therefore be kept simple.

Identification markings on a carton should be legible, which is too often not the case. It is important that identification of the floricultural product be printed or marked clearly on the labels. The labels should be correctly placed on the package, on the ends that usually remain visible.

Corrugated fibreboard

Corrugated fibreboard is the most frequently used material for shipping cut flowers and foliage to foreign markets. The main reason for the success of this material is its suitability for the shipping, handling and storage requirements of these products from the standpoints of strength, lightness and economy. It is used to produce many and various types, sizes and structures of boxes. Exporters of floricultural items should have an adequate knowledge of the packaging material itself, of the most widely used box types, and of their various characteristics in terms of shape and components.

Corrugated board, used in making cartons, is a complex material composed of from two to seven sheets of paper, both corrugated paper (referred to as "fluting") and flat paper (called a "liner"). A corrugated box consists of at least an outer liner and an inner liner, which is in contact with the packaged goods, separated by fluting. The fluting helps make the carton resistant to compression and crushing, while the liners help packages withstand mechanical stress (shock, drops, compression, punctures) and climatic stress (humidity) through their resistance to bending and tearing, and their bursting and stacking strength.

Unbleached kraft paper, made from coniferous wood pulp, is the most suitable liner material since it has a high tear resistance and a low rate of humidity absorption. Certain carton producers offer a lower quality paper, made from recycled paper, straw, bagasse, bamboo or other secondary materials. Those materials make less effective packaging, especially under humid conditions, because of their tendency to absorb moisture.

Their use is therefore not recommended for the manufacture of corrugated cartons to be used for shipping fresh flowers or foliage to foreign markets, unless no other material is available.

Anti-humidity treatments:

Being made mainly from vegetable and, in particular, wood fibres, paper is a hygroscopic material, which tends to absorb humidity from the surrounding atmosphere. Some goods being packaged contain a high degree of moisture themselves, which can affect the packaging. This is the case with fresh flowers and foliage.

Treating the interior surfaces of corrugated boxes with wax-based or polyethylene emulsion products effectively reduces the absorption of humidity from the contents of the package. This procedure may be appropriate for certain varieties of flowers. It is mainly used, however, for shipping types of foliage that are immersed in water before being packed, to ensure their freshness during several weeks of transport by sea.

While the above coating procedure is useful, it is also costly. Some exporters may wish to choose another solution, for example, using polyethylene-film wrapping inside the boxes.


Interior ventilation of the package can be an important element in preserving the quality of cut flowers, in particular when cooling is used to retard their natural maturation. The number of holes in the box and their form (round, oval or other shape), size and positioning should be calculated to allow for adequate ventilation, without significant reduction in the mechanical strength of the package.

It is important to ensure that certain varieties of flowers are not exposed to low temperatures, as may be encountered in Europe and the United States during the winter. In addition to the specific protective measures that should be taken during transport, handling and warehousing, the number of ventilation holes may be limited for this purpose. This can be achieved, for example, by using boxes with partially perforated holes, which allows the packer to provide ventilation manually as needed.

Most suitable types of box:

The International Fibreboard Case Code contains a number recommendations concerning specifications for corrugated boxes. These are designed to provide assistance to users seeking suitable packaging for their products and markets and to harmonize and facilitate use of the corresponding terminology. For instance, the three dimensions of the box should be given in a determined order, based on the interior measurements, in millimetres -- length (L) x breadth (B) x height (H) (in that sequence).

At present telescopic boxes are the most widely used type of corrugated cartons for export shipments of cut flowers and foliage. Others in frequent use are slotted and folder-type boxes. Various additional types of corrugated boxes that are designed for, or may be suitable for, packaging fresh flowers and foliage are slide-type, rigid and ready-glued boxes. Descriptions of the three most common types:

* Telescopic boxes are made up of two parts, a bottom and a lid, that fully overlap. Vertical compression resistance is thus ensured by having a double wall of corrugated board on all four sides of the box. To increase vertical compression strength, the use of a supplementary internal wall is recommended.

* Slotted boxes (or "American" boxes) have flaps that are equal on all four sides. This is an economical design since no fibreboard is wasted in the manufacturing process. A number of variations on this standard model exist.

* Folder-type boxes are usually made of a single piece of corrugated board. Assembly is generally quite simple, and for certain models no staples, glue or sealing tape is required. These models may either be used as separate units or grouped in a sleeve of corrugated board.


As mentioned above, corrugated fibreboard boxes are, generally speaking, the most appropriate packaging for the international marketing of fresh cut flowers and foliage, as well as certain varieties of green plants and cuttings. If however an exporting country has difficulties in finding supplies of such boxes, for technical or economic reasons, wooden materials could be an alternative. Since wooden packaging is widely used in other horticultural sectors, notably for fresh vegetables and fruits, such packaging can also be adapted to the flower and foliage market.

Important recommended features of lightweight wooden packaging used for shipping floricultural products are:

* The bottom and/or sides should usually have an open construction, to allow for air circulation and to maintain the freshness of the products.

* Packages used in series should be the same size and model, so that they can be consolidated, enabling them to be stacked and grouped into unit loads (palletization).

* Adequate vertical compression strength should be foreseen.

* The packaging should facilitate handling throughout the distribution chain, especially at the point of sale.

* The presentation should be attractive.

Some of the most widely used types of wooden box for packaging flower exports are:

1. Trays, made of sawn, sliced and veneered wood and sometimes chipboard. They are usually in rectangular, parallelepidic form, with solid tops and sidewalls. They can be fitted with a cover and are stackable.

2. Open wooden crates, in sawn wood, sliced wood or wood veneer. They have wide spaces between the boards, are parallelepidic in form and can be stacked and fitted with a cover.

3. Open wooden cases. These are similar to tall trays. They are stackable and can be fitted with a cover.

4. Wirebound crates. They are made of four panels, which are fitted with battens and linked together by metal wire, and have two independent end panels. They offer the advantages of delivery in "knockdown" state and rapid assembly. Such crates have a high degree of mechanical strength, especially for stacking.

In addition, open wooden cases and wirebound crates can be used for transporting certain types of foliage with, if necessary, an interior lining of polyethylene film or small potted plants.


Containers made of plastic materials are not generally used for shipping flowers. Exceptions include expanded polystyrene cases, with covers, designed for transporting green plant cuttings by air. This box style is more suitable for trial shipments, however, than for continuous use.

In the realm of injection-moulded plastics, flower containers can be designed on the lines of crates used by some exporters for shipping fresh fruits and vegetables. Since export packaging is usually nonreturnable, however, and plastics are made of petroleum-based products, it seems unrealistic at the present time to consider this type of package or to recommend its use for such exports.

Quality of material

In too many exporting countries, waste paper or old newspaper serves as a means of protecting the package contents, either as the immediate wrapping for flowers or bunches or, after conversion into paper fibre, as cushioning or insulating material for the floricultural items. The resulting presentation is not attractive.

Importers in the leading markets all agree that presentation of imported flowers and foliage needs to be improved, replacing waste papers with clean materials of wood fibre, paper or plastic. At the same time they are fully aware of the additional costs incurred by these materials and therefore accept current practices without objection. Attractive interior packaging can, however, make a good-quality product even more appealing. This is particularly relevant in highly competitive markets.

Exporters should compare the various packaging alternatives, study the associated costs and analyze the potential results that may be obtained with a better presentation when considering whether to upgrade their packaging materials.

External appearance

Packaging sells the product. Faced with either a pleasing or an unattractive outward appearance, a buyer unconsciously forms a similar image of the flowers or foliage inside. Two elements should be given attention in presentation of floricultural exports -- the box itself and the printing on the box.

Boxes may be white surfaced, as a result of bleaching the outer paper of the corrugated board. White boxes are more attractive, and printing shows more clearly on them. They are more expensive, however, and bleached papers have less strength than unbleached papers of the same substance. Furthermore a white surface is more easily scratched and marked and so requires more precautionary measures to keep it looking neat, both at the packing station and in subsequent handling.

In deciding on the outer appearance of packaging, an exporter should have information on:

* Whether the product will remain in the original packaging until it reaches the retail store (the normal situation), or whether it will be unpacked and "refreshed" by the importer before being repacked in new boxes (as is often the case in the Netherlands).

* The particular requirements of importers. Certain importers of floricultural products, depending on the country, are less demanding on pack appearance than others.

Pierre Herard is an ITC packaging consultant specialized in the export packaging of horticultural and floricultural products. Neil Robson is ITC's export packaging adviser. This article is based on a new ITC handbook that they wrote, Manual on the Packaging of Cut Flowers and Plants.

In any case, white finishes, lively colours and elaborate designs can never be a substitute for packaging that is strong enough to protect and preserve the contents.


Identification and marking are the functional aspects of package presentation. Importers are particularly concerned with the issue of marking, as precise, accurate and instantly understood marking can help prevent loss of time, errors, claims and litigation. Compliance with standards, regulations and requirements of importers is essential.

Printed characters and symbols, the only markings that can be easily interpreted in any country, are preferred to written markings. The various items of commercial information should always be printed on both ends of the carton, since at least one end can remain hidden.

In most cases - and with the exception of shipments to importers who use their own markings - it is in the exporter's interest to indicate clearly on the package the supplier's name and/or brand and the name of the country of origin. As well as being obligatory, this information represents a useful form of advertising for the floricultural supplier.

Interior packaging

Interior packaging is more complex than the outer box itself. When an exporter has taken decisions concerning the product, such as bunch size and stem length of the flowers, other choices must be made. These include the use of individual flower protection; protective or immobilizing cushioning; elastic, tape or other fastening materials; wooden or paperboard cross-bars; nails or staples; and cooling devices.

Each bunch should be individually wrapped, using paper, paperboard (single-faced board), transparent film (cellophane, polypropylene or polyethylene) or a combination of these materials.

The condensation that can form on film wrapping may stain the flower buds. A good remedy is to place paper wrapping around the buds before enclosing them in the film: the paper protects the buds from stains while the polyethylene maintains the humidity. Microperforated plastic film is a second, but more expensive, option.

For particularly fragile flowers, such as roses, it is recommended that a protective sleeve of paperboard be wrapped around each bunch; the sleeve should extend beyond the top of the flower buds, protecting them from contact with the ends of the box. Another method of protecting the buds is to fill the space between them and the box walls with fibre cushioning of paper or wood.

Market regulations

Exporters who wish to sell floricultural products in Europe, North America and Japan, and generally throughout the industrialized countries, should be familiar with the packaging regulations in force there.

* At the European level: In the European Community countries, the relevant document is Regulation No. 316/68 of the Council of 12 March 1968 (Official Journal of the European Communities, 21 March 1968). The principal information in this regulation and its amendments relates to the quality characteristics of cut flowers and foliage. Packaging, presentation and marking are also discussed in the regulation.

* At the international level: In July 1987 the UN Economic Commission for Europe (ECE) published standards that define the requirements on quality, classification, sizes, presentation, packing and marking of cut flowers and cut foliage (report AGRI/WP.1/46 of the ECE).

From the standpoints of packing and marking, the standards issued by these two organizations can be summarized as follows:


The floricultural products should be packed in a manner that ensures their protection. Packaging materials, and especially the paper used inside the pack, should be new, clean and of a material that cannot cause any alteration, either external or internal, of the product. Newspaper should not be used in direct contact with the product.


Floricultural products should be accompanied by a label attached to the package or a separate document that can be readily consulted by inspection services.

It should include the following information:

1. Identification:

-- Packer and/or shipper (name and address, or an official identifying symbol).

2. Nature of the product:

-- Type (genus) or species (double name).

-- Variety (cultivar) or colour of the flowers.

-- Where necessary, the mention "Mixed" or an equivalent word.

3. Origin of the product:

-- Country of origin, and possibly the region of production or a national, regional or local name.

4. Commercial characteristics:

-- Category.

-- Where required, size (stem length code) or maximum stem length.

-- Number of bunches and number of stems per bunch, or number of units, or weight of the bunch.

5. Official or inspection marks:

-- These are not obligatory.


From the standpoint of presentation, the relevant texts for each species should be consulted, as the number of bunches, units in the bunch and units in the pack vary with the species of flower.

Other regulations:

Other regulations also exist in some of the major markets.

The regulations on U.S. imports of fresh agricultural products are published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and are updated annually. No specific regulations have been established however on the subject of packing and marking, and exporters should therefore follow the text of the ECE standards referred to above.

In Canada, as in the United States, no specific regulations have been introduced on the packaging of flowers. Exporters should likewise be guided by the ECE standards.

The Japanese External Trade Organization (JETRO) has published the text of the regulations in force in that country concerning flower imports, under the title Access to Japan's Import Markets - Cut Flowers (Bulletin No. 29, 1981). No specific rules or regulations concerning packaging materials are provided in this document however. These matters are therefore left to the exporter, who is responsible for maintaining product quality throughout the distribution chain.

Potted plants

Potted plants require special treatment throughout the entire shipping process. The choice of export packaging for them depends on several factors: the abundance of the foliage, flexibility of the stems and leaves, and any tendency to become tangled during shipping.

Without protection, plants may be exposed to cold air and become damaged or die. Damaged plants give off more ethylene, which may cause their leaves to yellow, fade or drop off. Exposure to ethylene will prevent the flowers of flowering plants from opening and cause them to wither or fall.

Green plants should never be shipped or stored with fruits, vegetables or cut flowers, since these products also give off ethylene. Furthermore flowering plants should always be shipped separately from green plants.

If flower- or fruit-bearing green plants are being exported in containers, any flowers or fruit should be removed from the plants before shipment.

Special protection:

Most potted plants are protected against handling and transport damage with kraft paper or thin sheets of transparent plastic film, often perforated. Woven polyester wrapping is also recommended. To make handling easier, the upper portions of certains types of plants may need to be bound together. Small plants can be grouped in corrugated fibreboard boxes, which are fitted with partitions and with a specially treated, humidity-resistant tray, placed in the bottom. It is also recommended that, for plants being shipped to extremely cold or hot regions, sheets of expanded polystyrene be placed inside the boxes. Green plants may also be transported on grids or trays, with or without individual protection. For long-distance shipping in particular, preference should be given to containers that are equipped with a floor ventilation system and in which shelving and fixing attachments can be fitted.


Individually packed plants are either piled vertically, in a pyramidal stack, or layered so that the pots or bunches are laid at an angle, overlapping one another. Both the pyramidal and the layering systems provide good cushioning and effective use of the available space.

Once the lower half of the container has been packed, an intermediate deck should be introduced to carry the load in the upper section. Such a procedure will avoid any crushing of the lower layer, while maintaining interior ventilation and ensuring respiration of the plants.

In all cases, the entire load should be well secured by means of straps or other fittings, to ensure the complete stability of each unit.


Green plants should be shipped at temperatures ranging, in general, between 15 |degrees~ C and 18 |degrees~ C, with a relative humidity ranging from 85% to 90%. Recommended temperatures can vary for certain plants depending on the duration of the journey.

For the majority of the green plant varieties originating in hot countries, low temperatures pose the worst threat since they may cause wilting of the plants or yellowing of the leaves. If temperatures are too high, however, plants give off more ethylene, with the result that the humidity is lowered, and the plants are dried out. In view of this, it is advisable to place a temperature recorder in the container to verify the temperatures throughout the journey. These measures are mainly applicable to surface transport, and above all by road.

The marking on boxes of potted plants is especially important. Besides the origin and destination, the boxes should carry a notice that they contain live plants that are fragile and perishable. It is equally important to mark the boxes clearly with recommended upper and lower temperature limits and to indicate the top and bottom of the package using directional arrows.

Dimensional standards

Breaks in the distribution chain for flower exports may result in extra handling, delays at transshipment points, extension of delivery times, additional damage risks and increases in costs. The standardization of packaging dimensions is one way to avoid such ruptures. It allows the establishment of standard "unit loads" and, in particular, palletized loads.

To be economically efficient, the surface occupied by the load on a pallet should be at least 90% of the pallet area, the best return being achieved, naturally, when 100% is occupied. In other words, the basic dimensions of the packages should correspond to or closely approach the pallet dimension or sub-multiples of them. The pallets themselves should have dimensions that are sub-multiples of the transport container's internal dimensions.

Basic sizes:

At the international level, two principal sizes of pallets have been standardized by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO): 100 cm x 120 cm and 80 cm x 120 cm. The first is the most widely used in international trade, while the second is prevalent in Europe (for example, in the European pallet pool). The dimensions of ISO pallets are better adapted to surface transport than to airfreight.

Fresh flowers are most often shipped by airfreight. Packaging dimensions for these products should therefore match those of air pallets. The pallets used in most modern cargo planes measure 200 cm x 300 cm.

Manufacturers of corrugated boxes always refer to internal dimensions of the boxes, as indicated above, while in the case of palletization the external dimensions of the boxes must be considered. When specifying the dimensions of a corrugated board box, flower exporters should therefore define both the external and internal dimensions of the packs.


When boxes of flowers are loaded onto smaller pallets, such as the ISO types, and then placed on air pallets, the pallet dimensions should be sub-multiples of those of the air pallets or should be adaptable to suit those dimensions.

If ISO pallets are used alone, unoccupied space remains on the air pallet, amounting to 8% of the total area. This could be filled with boxes loaded in bulk, in order to achieve the maximum possible use of the space available on the pallet.

If, however, an ISO pallet (100 cm x 120 cm) is used in combination with a nonstandard pallet of 80 cm x 100 cm, utilization of the air pallet surface is 100%. This approach has been adopted by some flower exporters in Africa who ship to European destinations.

It is also possible to use pallets of the 100 cm x 100 cm format, putting six such pallets on one air pallet. These are the pallet dimensions of some fruit and vegetable exporters in developing countries, notably for the shipment of out-of-season green beans. In this case the air pallet surface utilization is 100%.

Standardized boxes:

Certain countries have already established dimensional standards for boxes, based on international pallet sizes.

For example Thailand, a major exporter of exotic flowers, in particular orchids, places great importance on maintaining the quality of the flowers right up to their destination. The Thai Packaging Centre, which is attached to the Thai Science and Technology Research Institute, has therefore studied scientifically the structure and dimensions of packages for flower exports.

Another example is Israel, one of the world's largest suppliers of flowers, of which a major proportion is exported to Europe. Standardization has existed for some years, and almost all Israeli flowers are shipped in one style of box. The boxes are loaded onto plastic pallets (100 cm x 120 cm), which allow 100% utilization of the pallet area, and are stacked up to four layers high. The pallets are nonreturnable but can be reused and recycled. Shipments are made by airfreight.

Cote d'Ivoire exports a specific range of floricultural products, including pineapple flowers and a wide variety of cuttings of green plants. Some exporters are beginning to install palletization facilities. The palletized boxes containing flower bunches are shipped to Europe by air. According to exporters, the extra costs of the pallet are largely offset by the economies and other advantages that arise throughout the distribution chain. To this can be added the benefits that result from a reduction in the risks of product damage.
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Author:Herard, Pierre; Robsson, Neil
Publication:International Trade Forum
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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