PLANT CITY — The Rose Lady wakes up every day at 6 a.m. and drinks a cup of coffee. Before the sun crests the horizon, she slips on her pink rubber gloves and picks up her pruning shears.
She walks to her back yard, where there's a steady hum of trucks running along Interstate 4, just 100 yards south. She clips the buds, which are just beginning to show their vibrant colors — red, pink, yellow, maroon, orange.
Linda Maxwell, the Rose Lady, places the flowers in water and stores them in a walk-in cooler. At 10 a.m., she loads her white minivan and drives through Plant City, delivering bouquets to businesses and people who order her fresh-picked roses.
"After eight years, you'd think I'd get sick of this," she said. "I'd like to sleep in every once in a while, but I don't complain. And I think if I'm not complaining, I must like it."
Maxwell, 59, started her rose business almost nine years ago. She was sick of her job as a shipper for Florida College's bookstore, so her husband suggested she turn her backyard hobby into a business. She did, and eventually named it the Rose Lady.
In 2001, she planted about 200 bushes and stored the cut flowers in a refrigerator. Her business grew, so she bought two large flower coolers and more bushes. She now has a walk-in cooler and 500 bushes. She just bought 50 more.
But some things don't change. Maxwell still doesn't accept credit cards, and she doesn't have a Web site. Orders come in by phone.
"This is not like a florist," she said. "This is about making people happy, and I enjoy it."
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Before the roses, she and her husband, Ronnie, grew strawberries on their Dover farm. They struggled some years with freezes — 1983 was the worst — and finally decided it was too stressful.
"We just looked at each other and said, 'This isn't fun anymore.' "
So after 23 years of berry farming, they sold the land and moved to Plant City, just north of I-4 and west of County Line Road.
But Linda Maxwell just went from one finicky crop to another. Roses aren't known for thriving under the scorching summer sun in Florida. They don't do well in humidity. So what made them decide to give it a try?
"Stupidity," Ronnie Maxwell said, laughing.
The couple's knowledge of farming and roses has made them successful. They know what kind of root stock to use, and Ronnie, a union insulator, sprays the plants with a fungicide to keep them healthy in the humid weather.
Though the buds often die in winter freezes, the bushes have survived each year. Blooms are sparse for Valentine's Day, but come May, Linda is often clipping 30 to 40 dozen roses a day.
"Roses don't stop for anybody," she said. "They just keep on going."
And she wants to keep up with them. A rose kept on the bush too long is a rose she can't sell, and she has plenty of customers.
On a recent morning, Steve Lindsey, 54, stopped by to pick up a sleeve of roses for a lady friend. He has been buying Maxwell's flowers for three years.
"They're purdy, and women like them," he said. "They just brag about how they opened up, how they smell good and how long they last."
That's what makes her roses different, she says. The flowers in her bouquets may not be identical to the pricier ones offered by florists, but they're local and fresh and they smell sweet.
She fills orders at her house and delivers bouquets in her minivan, mostly in Plant City but sometimes in Lakeland or as far west as Valrico.
Her business grew by word of mouth, and a nickname started catching on.
"Everywhere I'd go, people would say 'the Rose Lady's here,' " she said. "Eventually I said, 'Why don't I name it that?' "
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2443.