PUJILI, Ecuador (Reuters) - Ecuador has long been a major exporter of big bulbed, colorful flowers that please the eye and the nose. Now its farmers are exploring a new idea -- roses that you can eat.
Restaurants from New York to Barcelona, looking to attract customers with novelty dishes, have started to serve food containing organic rose petals grown on farms like Roberto Nevado's in Ecuador's central highlands.
Nevado is a spritely septuagenarian who moved here from his native Spain to start a plantation in the perfect rose-growing conditions offered by this part of the country, and his Nevado Ecuador farm now has three million bushes under cultivation.
Only 100,000 of them are grown without pesticides and meant for eating.
"But we believe the market will grow," he said over lunch at his plantation featuring starters, main dishes and desserts containing red, pink and white rose petals that left a bitter-sweet sensation on the palate
"It's new, it's interesting, and that's what everyone wants," Nevado said, his green eyes flashing as he rolled a dollop of passion fruit mousse over his tongue, crushed rose petals adding a tangy juxtaposition to the sweetness.
A mechanical engineer by training, the energetic Nevado works standing up in his office, even while at his computer or talking on the phone. He started growing organic roses four years ago as part of the "going green" trend in business.
"They are the same species as non-edible roses, but the fertilizers have to be organic and no chemicals can be sprayed on them, which means they need more human care," Nevado said.
Many bugs that can damage roses do not like garlic, he explained, so workers spray garlic solution onto the organic bushes and plant garlic around his edible rose greenhouses.
A long-time rose trader in Europe, Nevado came here 12 years ago, attracted to the South American country's high altitudes and position on the equator, conditions that provide the intense sunlight needed to grow the best roses.
His farms stand about 2,800 meters above sea level. He has 500 employees and ships 20 million stems a year. Edible petals are a tiny part of his business, for now.
Restaurants such as Per Se in New York, Zazu in Quito and El Bulli near Barcelona have started experimenting with rose petal dishes and desserts such as "Rose Souffle".
"The waiters sometimes have to explain that we did not just pull these roses out of the flower vase, that they are grown especially for eating," said Zazu assistant chef Daniel Pillon, a Brazilian with a reassuring smile.
The restaurant's rose martini, made with petals soaked for a week in vodka, is becoming a favorite at Zazu's bar.
Ecuador's flower industry has bloomed since the signing of the 1991 Andean Trade Preferences Act, which lowers trade barriers for countries in the region that help Washington fight drug trafficking. Most of the world's coca, the main ingredient to make cocaine, is grown in neighboring Colombia and Peru.
Ecuador's flower exports were worth $600 million last year. The industry has been growing by about 13 percent annually and now accounts for 2 percent of gross domestic product.
About 100,000 people are employed directly and indirectly by the flower industry, a substantial number for a nation with a population of only 14 million.
Edible roses account for only about 1 percent of flower exports, but growers say the market needs to be encouraged as the country pulls out of the economic doldrums of 2009.
"Every type of new market, even small boutique markets such as this one, can help promote Ecuadorean flowers in general and help the industry grow," said Ignacio Perez, head of the Expoflores growers' association.
He and other experts here say they know of no other country exporting edible roses, which offer nutritional benefits such as calcium and vitamin C.
The petals are certified by European Union authorities and the U.S. Department of Agriculture for import. Nevado is pushing the idea of edible roses at food shows. He says one challenge is to convince potential buyers that they are safe.
"It's basically lettuce in rose form," Nevado, a short and courtly man given to dressing in black, said during the recent lunch at his farm.
When a reporter noticed Nevado had not finished all the petals that wrapped a delicious tuna-stuffed tomato appetizer, he admitted, "I'm about up to here with rose petals," drawing an imaginary line across his forehead with his finger.
"But finish yours," he said, "please."
Editing by Kieran Murray