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CHICAGO (Reuters) - Forget spray roses and baby's breath this Valentine's Day. As consumers' tastes in bouquets turn to seasonal, delicate blooms, some of the U.S. floral industry's imports of classic fare have wilted.
Nearly 80 percent of all cut flowers used in bouquets and to make floral arrangements in the United States are imported, with South America dominating the sector, according to federal Agriculture Department data.
While the volume of fresh cut roses - a Valentine's Day favorite - flown in from Colombia crept up 2 percent last year, spray roses fell l6 percent and lilies were down 17 percent.
The reason, floral industry experts say, is that Americans are reaching for more delicate blooms found in a well-tended garden or those with more of a seasonal, exotic feel to them.
"If it's available year round, it's kind of lost its luster," said Phil Mueller, manager of Wisconsin-based Star Valley Flowers, the largest Midwest field-grown flower producer.
"Spray roses? That's boring," he said. "Cut orchids? That's really, really big right now."
On the West Coast, farmers have steadily been switching from growing roses and carnations to acres of dahlias and sweet peas, said Kasey Cronquist, chief executive of the California Cut Flower Commission.
Growers are moving into cut-flower crops "that are difficult to import, because they can't handle being put in boxes and being shipped on planes," Cronquist said.
Interest is also blooming over the "slow flower" movement. Flower farmers say that, like the growing demand for locally produced food, they are finding a small but increasing audience for locally grown blooms.
Judy Laushman, executive director of the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers, said its membership exceeds 800, an all-time high.
How much U.S. sales has shifted to domestically grown blooms is not known. But any move to local supplies is welcome news for the U.S. cut-flower industry, say producers who have struggled for years to compete with less expensive imports of roses, carnations and lilies.
Those flowers have became increasingly available since 1991, when the United States struck a trade agreement with Ecuador and Colombia in a bid to halt cultivation of coca, which is used for cocaine. That gave exporters duty-free access to the U.S. market, according to the California Cut Flower Commission.
While importers say they are adjusting to consumer trends, roses still reign: Columbia exported 1.1 billion fresh-cut roses to the U.S. last year, worth $269.1 million.
Reporting By P.J. Huffstutter; editing by Jo Winterbottom and Gunna Dickson