Skip to main content

Like modern Cupid, border inspector picks flowers aimed for your Valentine

By Michael Martinez and Jaqueline Hurtado, CNN
February 14, 2014 -- Updated 1705 GMT (0105 HKT)
  • Rosie Maizuss and crew review 19 million Valentine flowers at U.S.-Mexico border
  • Valentine's Day and Mother's Day are their busiest season for floral inspections
  • Mexican truckers lament when inspectors find bugs and pests in floral deliveries
  • "Cut flowers is a huge industry, and it's very important we protect it," Maizuss says

Otay Mesa, California (CNN) -- In the weeks before every Valentine's Day, Rosie Maizuss wields enormous power, like a modern-day Cupid able to influence millions of romances -- depending on whether she detects just the slightest thing amiss.

Maizuss is a federal inspector lording over the arrival of millions of roses and other flowers from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, intended for delivery to couples in the United States.

Her job is monumental: she and other U.S. Customs and Border Protection inspectors are now in one of their two busiest season of year -- Mother's Day is the other one -- at the U.S.-Mexico border near San Diego.

In the span of six weeks, she and her crew will have sniffed, touched, reviewed and inspected shipments of cut stem flowers whose final count is expected to total more 19 million by Valentine's Day on Friday.

"We know that we are going to have an influx of fresh flowers, but we have a special operation to focus on more inspection" during the holiday madness, Maizuss said.

As dizzying as that number is, the U.S.-Mexico border crossing at Otay Mesa, California, is hardly the nation's busiest port for Valentine floral inspections. That title goes to Miami, where during last year's Valentine season, officials processed a whopping 738.2 million cut flower stems shipped in from Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico and elsewhere.

Otay Mesa ranked No. 3 among the nation's busiest ports in processing Valentine flowers last year and No. 6 for finding plant pests in shipments. A total of 59 little critters were found last year.

For anyone who enjoys expressions of the heart, the Otay Mesa crossing is a snapshot -- or a metaphor for Cupid's arrow in flight? -- of how the delivery of Valentine Day's roses can be a long and difficult journey. It's not unlike, well, true love itself.

What makes Maizuss' job so important is that she must keep the bad flowers from possibly causing catastrophic damage to American soil. To do so, she and her colleagues ensure the flowers are free of disease, insects and microscopic pests that, if they found their way on U.S. land, could wipe out swaths of American agricultural and floral industries.

"What we do is we take a random sample out of each variety of flowers, and we do our inspection in either in an edit bay inside, or out on the dock," Maizuss explained at the border crossing, where motorist traffic is routinely backed up for an hour or more.

"What we are looking for is any variety of pest," she added. "The ones that are reportable are the ones we already have here in the States, and the ones that are actionable are the ones that we actually don't want in the States at all, because they are invasive, because they are a big problem for the U.S.

"Cut flowers is a huge industry, and it's very important we protect it all the time," said Maizuss, who's chief agriculture specialist.

Last year, inspectors found a total of 1,715 pests in Valentine flowers at all ports of entry, federal figures shows. The most common insects intercepted were aphids, thrips, moths, miner flies and mites.

Such vigilance can mean headaches for the truckers who waited in standstill traffic at the busy U.S.-Mexico border -- only to be forced to turn around if they don't pass Maizuss' inspection.

"I remember a few times they had sent me back," trucker Samuel Serrano said.

That meant he had to return to Maneadero, Mexico, near Ensenada, where he unloaded the flowers and had them fumigated to kill the bugs, he said. He eventually passed U.S. inspection on a subsequent trip across the border, he said.

It's a necessary protection that Mexican truckers such as Jesus Sanchez Lopez understand -- though they feel the deadline pressure from U.S. markets to deliver the roses, dianthus, sunflowers and larkspur by February 14.

"When our flowers are not clean, they send us back to Mexico, and we have to clean them, take them down from the truck, and then come back," said Sanchez, who has endured such failure to pass inspection several times.

Some rejections have resulted in a total loss for that shipment, he said. Sanchez also delivers flowers from Ensenada, located about 70 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border.

"When that happens we lose money, time, and it's a huge problem because we have to go back and can't deliver the flowers," he added. "You really don't know until you get here and they tell you that some of your flowers are infested."

Despite such setbacks, the demand for love remains insatiable, the truckers say.

"The last two weeks have been very busy because of the celebration of Valentine's Day," Serrano said.

CNN's Jaqueline Hurtado reported for this report from Otay Mesa, California; Michael Martinez reported and wrote from Los Angeles.

Part of complete coverage on
February 14, 2013 -- Updated 1041 GMT (1841 HKT)
Lloyd and Marian met at a California high school in the 1940s, when Bing Crosby was big, a stamp cost 3 cents, and war raged around the world.
February 13, 2014 -- Updated 1937 GMT (0337 HKT)
Hannah Brencher never planned on starting a worldwide movement.
May 9, 2014 -- Updated 1659 GMT (0059 HKT)
This Valentine's Day, we're turning to some of our favorite celebrity couples for tips on keeping those romantic flames burning.
February 13, 2014 -- Updated 1246 GMT (2046 HKT)
By pronouncement of the sheriff, there will be no Valentine's Day this Friday.
February 14, 2014 -- Updated 1504 GMT (2304 HKT)
Less than a week after releasing its 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime, Amazon is out with a new list: 150 Love Stories for Every Romantic Mood, just in time for Valentine's Day.
February 13, 2014 -- Updated 1719 GMT (0119 HKT)
Carly Holbrook came to Aspen, Colorado, for the Winter X Games but left with the love of her life.
February 13, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Here's some background information about Valentine's Day, celebrated every February 14th.
February 11, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
The scenes from these movies might set the mood.
February 14, 2013 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Americans spend quite a bit of money to show their love on Valentine's Day (Thursday just in case you needed reminding). Here's a breakdown, by the numbers.
February 12, 2013 -- Updated 1551 GMT (2351 HKT)
When it comes to romance, texting is often seen as a bare-minimum form of communication. It's fine for firming up dinner plans, but for expressing heartfelt sentiments? Not so much.
February 14, 2013 -- Updated 1636 GMT (0036 HKT)
The language of love connects us, no matter if it's in a letter or an e-mail.
February 14, 2013 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
Love boats and sexy submarines: We pick seven of the most romantic sea-themed excursions for you and your loved one on Valentine's Day.
February 12, 2013 -- Updated 1821 GMT (0221 HKT)
Are we losing the ability to interface in person after hiding behind screens and keyboards? It's time to reclaim lost dating instincts.
February 13, 2013 -- Updated 1540 GMT (2340 HKT)
What's on tap for you and your partner this Valentine's Day? A romantic dinner, a box of chocolates, maybe a bouquet of roses?
February 13, 2013 -- Updated 2149 GMT (0549 HKT)
Many people don't know the first thing about breaking the ice with strangers they're attracted to. Enter flirting coaches.
February 13, 2013 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
In honor of all the romantic getaways, we asked some relationship gurus for their romantic room essentials and added a few or our own.
August 5, 2013 -- Updated 1014 GMT (1814 HKT)
Breaking up in a foreign land isn't as bad as you might imagine.
candy heart
Where should you take your date? Which wine is the best pick? Need last-minute recipes? Eatocracy has it all, whether you love or hate the holiday.