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Feb. 14 is sweet for Colombian flower growers

How do I love thee? Let me count the cash.

On Saturday, when Americans celebrate Valentine's Day with a traditional gift of cut flowers, Colombians will be seeing dollar signs instead of cupids and counting the capital gain for the country's economy.The United States is Colombia's largest flower market, and up to 20 percent of its annual sales there are on Valentine's Day, industry sources say.

Miguel Gomez, head of the Colombian Flower Exporters' Association, said sales for this year's Valentine's Day are expected to total about $80 million, up from $65 million in 1997.

Gomez said Colombia had shipped 11,500 metric tons of flowers to the U.S. market, mostly roses and carnations, for this weekend's love fest - up from 10.4 million tons last year.

Mothers' Day, July 4th and Thanksgiving are among other sentimental U.S. celebrations that help Colombia's flower industry reap large profits.

But Valentine's Day is the one flower growers have come to love best.

Colombia is the leading supplier of imported fresh cut flowers sold in the United States, with an 88 percent market share, Gomez said.

The country - better known perhaps for its coffee and as the source of about 80 percent of the world's cocaine - ranks second only to the Netherlands as the world's top producer of cut flowers.