British growers are producing more poinsettia this year in anticipation of a drop in supply from Dutch growers hit by the exchange rate, Bemesia (whitefly) and increases in heating costs.
It could be the first time in a decade that sales of British poinsettia are higher than those of Dutch plants in the UK, say growers — but only if they can stave off the pests. More than four million plants will be sold, with supermarkets such as Sainsbury's and Asda having "buy British" policies. Production of British-grown plants could rise to above two million this year.
Sales have risen by 50 per cent in the past five years and could rise 15 per cent this year, but prices are unlikely to rise much this year, growers have said.
However, British growers are also concerned about the non-indigenous pest Bemesia and the lack of products available to stop it.
Pinetops Nurseries owner Derf Paton said Bemesia is treated as an indigenous species in most of the EU. It is therefore posing a serious threat to UK growers of fresh produce who do not have the means to effectively eradicate it. "There is no point in bankrupting UK producers if Defra does not allow the use of certain chemicals," said Paton.
Paton believes there is a strong case for adopting similar policies to Australia, New Zealand and the US, which maintain strict controls on plant material coming across their borders.
"It is not possible to ascertain at the point of entry whether a plant is infected or not. Defra must provide enforceable, practical policies with cost-effective, proven eradication methods," he said.
The EU-promoted loss of methyl bromide and now nicotine shreds means growers have few ways of fighting the pest and the NFU must tackle this in its policy review in January, said Paton.
NFU horticulture adviser Dr Chris Hartfield said the NFU is setting up a meeting with the Food & Environment Research Agency to address gaps in crop-protection products.
Hartfield said: "Bemesia is always a threat to UK growers and is a significant concern especially in the absence of any effective controls." He said there would be "very significant losses" if growers had quarantine controls imposed.
Garden writer Peter Seabrook said: "Bemesia is endemic in Holland. You can't import with Bemesia. There will be shortages this year and prices will harden due to a lack of supplies because if you've got it you can't move anything. UK plants are clean and under strict controls but there are no longer enough UK growers to serve the market."
Growers of poinsettia include Bordon Hill Nurseries, Hill Brothers, Pinetops, Copseys, Coletta & Tyson and Double H Nursery Sales.
But Seabrook warned: "There might be even fewer UK growers next year if nicotine shreds are taken off use."
According to ADAS entomologist and bedding and pot plant consultant John Buxton, Bemesia has been about this year at higher levels than last year. It comes in very low levels on cuttings from Spain and Portugal and elsewhere in Europe and because poinsettia is a late-season crop, growing from July onward, it is difficult to control.
"In Europe they just regard it as another whitefly but in the UK it is seen as non-indigenous pest and is subject to quarantine," said Buxton.
"There is quite a lot about and some people are having problems with it. Cuttings come from countries all over the world. It seems to me they are sending pesticide-resistant strains of whitefly to us.
"This will affect quality because the more you treat with pesticides the greater chance you have of getting scorch. Losing tobacco shreds does not help. There is a shortage of options."
Growers are clearly very concerned. One said: "We're squeaky clean. We've been inspected. When your business is at stake you don't want to talk — we're all terrified."
Chichester-based Hill Brothers account manager Greg Hill said Bemesia is "always a risk and possibly marginally worse this year. We use very stringent biological control. It's a worry for every producer and not just poinsettia. The tools are getting less and less."
Hill added that sales are good even if profits and pests are not: "In the past five years volumes are up 50 per cent. Marks & Spencer has doubled volumes this year. Most of the growth has happened but it will be up 10 to 15 per cent this year."
Hill Brothers will grow 450,000 poinsettia this year. He added: "Dutch import prices are going up because of the euro and heating rises so plants are likely to be slightly more expensive.
"Some people may get a price increase but not enough to turn poinsettia into profitable horticulture. Growers may get slightly more to offset costs.
"Growing poinsettia covers the bills. We employ staff all year round and this covers the overheads but doesn't give a vast amount to the bottom line.
"It's all down to price. A 13cm pot at £1.98 is not the biggest expense in your Christmas budget. It's not a lot of money. People paid £4.99 at a supermarket 10 years ago. Because of tightness of margins you find little variety. It's any colour as long as it's red.
"For a lot of retailers poinsettia has been a loss leader and when you are willing to do that with a product any price changes are very slight. It depends on the retailers' strategies — whether they want to make a statement or are chasing margin or profit.
"Prices will be similar to last year. Someone will lower them and the rest will follow.
"There is a possibly an opportunity with prices but not particularly profitable — they're a necessary evil. The reality is you have to fill glass with something this time of year and poinsettia is the only thing suitable."
Moerman, which grew 500,000 poinsettia annually, closed last year.
Hill said: "If someone does disappear there is a lot of customer interest. A lot like to buy British product but it is not easy to produce the quality of volumes required. Dutch guys grow for Marks & Spencer but Sainsbury's is committed to [buying] British from us and Asda also claims to be [buying] British."
Double H Nursery Sales representative Neil Simpson said he had upped production this year, adding: "I'm sure it's true imported plants will be more expensive — this should harden up the market. There's bound to be a bit of tightening of price and it should mean people are assured of selling out.
"We used to grow more but margins tightened. We have increased a little this year because we could see an opportunity."