Opportunities for niche British houseplants

British flowering houseplants are on the rise thanks to exchange rates, with specialist supplier Dibleys Nurseries showing best practice in the field.

Image: HW
Image: HW

Welsh streptocarpus specialist Dibleys has shown how specialising in a small number of genera has paid off as houseplants have come into fashion over the past year.

With the "vast majority" of houseplants being imported from Holland and Denmark, niche suppliers such as Dibleys are in demand as exchange rate changes mean UK-grown product is now more attractive to UK garden centres.

Dibleys' Gareth Dibley says there is "not that much competition" in his field. Most houseplants come from the continent and there are not many growers in this country anymore because the houseplant industry went the same way as UK cut flowers when oil prices and more efficient overseas growers made glasshouse heating uneconomical in the 1970s.

But, just as niche cut-flower growers are on the rise, there is a feeling that houseplant growers can make a comeback. Garden centre groups want to look to buy from British growers more, for economic and environmental as well as patriotic reasons.

Dibley says that if exchange rates had gone the other way after last year's Brexit vote there might not have been such a surge towards UK-grown. But as it is, he has seen a 12-13% uplift in wholesale sales this year at the 40-year-old grower.

"The pound is helping," he adds. "Wholesale has been good this year and we've picked up quite a few new garden centres."

Wyevale Garden Centres is Dibleys' biggest retail customer and Dibley has high hopes that Dobbies, which has a new buy-British policy under chief executive Nicholas Marshall, could be a more consistent customer in the future.

Glendoick Garden Centre is also among big customers. Director Ken Cox says: "Dibleys Streptocarpus are one of the great UK plant breeding heroes. They absolutely dominate this plant and nobody else even touches their innovation and quality. The Dutch have not got any idea how to do it.

"We love them and sell hundreds every year. A houseplant which flowers for months, needs little watering, is easy to increase.... what more could you want."

Dibleys grows more than 100 varieties of streptocarpus and begonias, while the Dutch model would be six streptocarpus, Dibley explains. "We do a wide range and hope to take the customer with us as a collector. The Dutch and Danes grow them as disposable items. Our customers ask how to keep them over the winter and they collect them and want more varieties. That's why we put so much effort into our breeding programme — to stay ahead of the competition."

Dibleys also promotes the brand and sells from 20 shows a year, although it once did 45. "I like shows but business needs to come first." says Dibley.

He adds that 70% of houseplants are imported, with large UK producers such as Double H producing large volumes of a few lines, such as being the UK's largest producer of Phalaenopsis orchids. Hills Plants, also on the south coast, also specialises in poinsettias and orchids for supermarkets.

Poinsettia production in the UK remains one of the biggest indoor crops. Woodlark Nurseries' Colin Edwards says he is growing an extra block of one-litre poinsettias this year, to make it 45,000 in all, after not having enough in 2016. He grows 10cm, one-litre, 1.5-litre and two-litre pots in his Surrey nursery.

Edwards has garden centre customers lined up and hopes to get a nationwide promotional campaign off the ground in garden centres. "I think most garden centres like British product if they can get hold of it. Poinsettias don't travel well. I won't knock the Dutch, because most of their product is very good, but transport is the killer and our customers are within an hour away."

Biomass, better growing techniques and less waste have helped make the product a more sustainable crop to grow, but he says the UK grows poinsettias for longer too. But he adds that wholesale prices are only 5p more than in 1999. "Draw your own conclusions on that."

Camden Garden Centre managing director Peter Hullat says flowering houseplants are a tougher sell than they were 20 or 30 years ago, before Marks & Spencer and Ikea took much if the garden centre market.

He says he still sells poinsettia, cyclamen and azalea at Christmas but plants such as orchids, Saintpaulia, mini rose, begonia and kalanchoe has shrunk. 

This is because of "saturation" in the market, with supermarkets and even garages selling them, which led to wastage in garden centres and ultimately fewer being stocked. For Hulatt, the massive area of growth is in foliage houseplants. He is running a cacti festival and says plants such as peace lilies, monstera, fiddle leaf figs are on trend with flat owners, students and office workers, meaning a big upsurge in sales. His advice is to have houseplants in the entrance to the centre as customers come in, and to have planteria rather than till staff look after them.

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