At a time when imports of ornamental plants are up and exports are down (see box), the question of how to promote UK-grown plants is still challenging the industry and its representatives.
Although the environmental, economic and plant-health benefits of growing more ornamentals in the UK are clear, as growing becomes part of an ever more international trade, growers question whether it matters that a plant is UK-bred. Meanwhile, some retailers and growers question whether their customers are worried about origin as long as the plants they buy are the right price and of the right quality.
At the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, the British rose trade promoted its rose of the year - a variety bred in Germany.
Rose of the Year 2016 is 'Sunny Sky', bred by W Kordes and introduced by British Association of Rose Breeders promotional arm Roses UK "on behalf of the British rose trade". Kordes, represented in the UK by Mattocks (hence its eligibility for British awards), has won four times in 11 years.
Other title contenders
Other new roses bred by UK breeders Philip Harkness ('Lynda Bellingham') and Colin Dickson ('WB Yeats' and 'Lilac Wine'), for instance, were also launched. But the Kordes rose came out best in UK trials and is being grown by 14 UK nurseries.
"Like Wimbledon or the World Cup, the competition is open to breeders from all over the world," said Harkness. "If you look at England versus the rest of the world, we are not doing too badly. It is just that the Germans are overly successful. They keep knocking in those penalties against us. Kordes has been breeding fantastic roses for as long as I can remember."
Gareth Fryer, whose Cheshire-based company Fryer's Roses took the title in 2007, 2009 and 2013, likened competing with German rose breeders to "David and Goliath". He added: "Kordes and Tantau are the big boys - the Mercedes and BMW of the rose industry. They are two of the biggest breeders in the world with much greater financial muscle than us.
"But because we are small we can be more specialised and focused, and we know the English market. We are fighting our corner and every now and again we catch them off guard."
Importers from the Netherlands were prominent at last month's HTA National Plant Show. The best houseplant winner was ProfitPlant UK's Little Kolibri Orchids Victoria Falls, while shrubs and climbers winner was Javado UK's Hydrangea macrophylla 'Rendez-Vous' French Cancan.
Alton Garden Centre director Andy Bunker says: "The way most good garden centres are working is to use reputable importers. In fact, in 90 per cent of cases an English centre cannot buy direct from a grower so has to use a handling company - such as Javado or Go Green."
Garden Centre Fresh director Paul Moors agrees with Bunker. "A lot of growers want to do direct shipments because they think they can do better cutting out but you need a good logistics partner to create that supply," he advises.
On the other hand, liner producer Seiont Nurseries manager Neil Alcock says Welsh-bred heucheras are now with three big plant finishers and are going into retail. "I like to think they are buying them because they are UK-bred," he adds.
"I gave the breeder a shopping list - more compact, robust, garden-worthy. The idea of food miles is hard to transfer to ornamental, but people now do expect food to be grown more locally."
Alcock has worked with Horticulture Wales to increase local sourcing and is also commercialising a heuchera range from UK breeders Vicky and Richard Fox of Plantagogo for wider launch later this year, following a promotion at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.
Chelsea is, of course, an international event, but this year saw some exhibitors promoting UK-grown hit problems. Firstly, the NFU and Waitrose pulled the plug on their UK Horticulture exhibit, which has promoted British growers for half a century. They promised to return in 2016 but have also said they might take another promotional path to promote members' interests.
Then Interflora won a silver gilt medal for a display that included just one British-grown variety out of 60 after saying its concept would "represent the Best of British (and) incorporate British-grown flowers".
Show judges' criteria
Chrysanthemums Direct exhibition manager Martyn Flint, who also won a silver gilt for his British-grown Chelsea display, says: "The origin of the plant material has no consequence in RHS judging. A lot of exhibitors feel if you grow the plants yourself it should put you above someone who buys in from abroad."
RHS judge Jon Wheatley says this issue may be something that the society looks at in the future.
By contrast, Marks & Spencer showed it can be done with an exhibit of British-grown cut flowers, while New Covent Garden Flower Market's British Flowers Week (15-19 June), the campaign to promote British cut flowers, saw its Twitter reach increase by 260 per cent to 5.4 million.
James Cock, owner of Cornish grower and wholesaler Flowers by Clowance, says: "British Flowers Week is the new Mother's Day," after recording a big spike in sales.
So it seems that promoting home-grown does work, though the question remains how best to do it.
Defra figures show UK plant imports rose from £1,079m in 2013 to £1,106m in 2014 while exports fell from £61m in 2013 to £56m in 2014
£1,106m - Imports 2014
£56m - Exports 2014.