Houseplants have in recent years been seen as the poor relation in UK horticulture. With an annual sales value of around £168m, they account for barely 10 per cent of plant sales — well below the figure in many other European countries.
But one bright spot for UK growers appears to be orchids. Long seen as the provenance of large, specialist, Dutch producers, three British companies have recently invested in home-grown production, with encouraging results.
Hampshire-based Double H Nursery completed a new production nursery a year ago and now grows 12,000 Phalaenopsis a week for UK multiples including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Homebase and Marks & Spencer.
Quality manager Mark Riley says: “Our new facility is equivalent to a Dutch one in terms of technology and climate control.”
Riley says British growers are benefiting from a growing demand for orchids, but are also succeeding in taking sales off their Dutch competitors.
“Distribution costs are lower and transport costs are likely to become more expensive still,” he says. “Increasingly, there is a keenness among customers to buy in the UK. Obviously, the weakness of the pound against the euro also helps.”
Perhaps the surprising thing is that orchids are only now being appreciated beyond the specialist market. “They are good-value houseplants,” he says. “They are very robust and easy to look after, and their watering requirements are minimal.”
However, orchids are difficult in production terms, he adds. The cycle is long, typically a year, and requires two separate temperature environments — initially a high 27-28°C then cooling to 18-19°C to stimulate flowering. “The high temperatures at the early stage make them prone to disease,” says Riley.
Worcestershire-based Hollyoak Orchids is another nursery to have made significant investment in orchid production. The 2008 Bedding and Pot Plant Grower of the Year put in a 2ha state-of-the-art glasshouse five years ago, which is being expanded.
Co-owner Tim Morris says it was important for the company to invest in top-end facilities. “We took a lot of advice from Continental growers. We had thought of a second-hand glasshouse, but orchids are a technically demanding crop. We evaluated every component for its suitability and labour-saving potential.”
The 780sq m polycarbonate structure ensures high heat efficiency while rolling benches cut down on handling.
The firm aims for the higher end of the market, concentrating on Fortnum & Mason, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer as well as garden-centre chain Blooms of Bressingham and its parent company, Wyevale.
Despite orchids being a relatively high-energy crop, Morris believes his plants fit in with the garden-centre chain’s sustainable ethos.
“Wyevale is keen on the ‘English grown’ label,” he says. “Our carbon footprint is quite low and we are looking at alternative sources of heating and cooling. With careful hygiene and climate control, orchids are very resilient. We also use very little fertiliser, so there’s no run-off problem.”
The potential growth in the UK market has attracted international attention. Taiwan Flora, which already sells a million plants a month in China as well as exporting to Japan and the US, has recently invested heavily in production near Spalding, Lincolnshire, and now trades as V-Flora (UK).
The company had previously intended to collaborate with the site’s former owner Suttons of Wisbech, but this yielded little before the troubled grower went into receivership in July 2007. Taiwan Flora then took charge, buying the site for £1.6m.
Although a ready-made facility, the glasshouse complex has required a great deal of further investment, says sales manager Mark Powell. “There had been no investment in the five years that Suttons owned it. There was a lot of broken glass and the flood tables didn’t work.”
Powell became interested in the Taiwanese orchid trade following a trip to Taiwan two years ago, when he was “blown away” by production, he says.
The company is owned by husband-and-wife team, Wanda and Milly Liu, now resident in the area, along with a Chinese investor. Milly Liu explains how Taiwan reached a pre-eminent position in orchid production: “Many growers in Taiwan were originally hobbyists, who regularly entered competitions with the plants they bred. It has taken 50 years to turn it into the industry it is today.”
V-Flora now employs 26 people locally, including several Taiwanese nationals with specialist technical knowledge. “It’s been easier to recruit people than we thought it would be,” says Powell. “We do use some casual labour, but mostly it’s our own staff, which gives us continuity.”
Young plants are grown for a year in a hermetically sealed US Department of Agriculture-certified glasshouse at the company’s base in Taiwan, before undergoing a five-week sea trip to the UK in climate-controlled containers.
Such tolerance of prolonged storage makes orchids a more viable import proposition than cut flowers, which have to be
air-freighted, says Powell. “A container can be shipped over for £3,000 and can contain 15,000 to 100,000 plants. It’s a cost you have to factor in, but it’s not prohibitive.
“In fact, the biggest cost is the heating, which is around £1,000 a day. But we are still making a decent margin.”
At the glasshouse, the plants are then repotted into six, nine or 12 pots, using sphagnum imported in bales from Chile.
“It’s inert and holds moisture better than the bark that the Dutch and Danish growers use,” says Powell.
They are warmed to “get them going again” then placed in a cooler area until they develop a flower spike, which takes four to six months. “You end up with a plant that you can call ‘UK-grown’,” says Powell. “People are getting more interested in their carbon footprint and where things have come from.”
The firm already supplies Waitrose, Morrison’s and Tesco, with Asda to follow, while Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury’s are “also interested”, says Powell. Garden & Leisure Group’s outlets take the plants, as do wholesalers across the South and the Midlands.
“We will be taking market share from the Dutch,” says Powell. Next year the company intends to produce 1.2 million plants, rising eventually to three million. Initially the company has let out glasshouse area to other growers, but will no longer need to as production expands.
The company is going through British Ornamental Plant Producers’ accreditation, which should conclude by December, and is looking to expand distribution of part-grown plants to France, Italy, Spain and Denmark.
The orchids ship with care cards, though Powell stresses they are straightforward to look after. “People tend to over-water them, but it’s enough simply to dip the pot in water for 20 seconds once a week,” he says. Specially formulated feed is also available from garden centres. Orchids also benefit from light on their roots, hence the prevalence of transparent pots.
Production has so far concentrated on Phalaenopsis and Dendrobium, but the company is also trialling others including slipper orchids, and creating awareness of its Glorchid brand through point-of-sale material.
“You need to get the right variety to the right customer, rather than offering everything to everyone,” Powell says, pointing out that Waitrose only takes a few Dendrobium to maintain the image of exclusive product.
Orchids remain a tough market, as the closure of Preseli Orchids in August showed. But Powell has few worries about the timing of the company’s expansion. “It’s a recession product,” he says. “You can buy one for £12-£15 and it will last three to four months, which compares very well with cut flowers. It’s also year-round.”
Phalaenopsis - money spinner
Orchids form the largest family of flowering plants, with nearly 900 genera and over 22,000 species. Yet commercial production concentrates overwhelmingly on Phalaenopsis, the moth orchid, as it is reliable in production, easy to maintain and an eye-catching sales item.
According to Double H’s Mark Riley: “There are thousands of varieties of Phalaenopsis and they are continually being bred and developed, so there are no really established varieties.”
V-Flora is trialling a number of other orchid types, but Mark Powell sees Phalaenopsis as a production staple. “We are known for V3 types which have a large flowering cascade,” he says.
“We do some Phalaenopsis varieties that you can’t get from Holland. They always look great — delicate-looking yet robust. We will be bringing in new varieties from Taiwan that haven’t been seen yet in the UK, which will maintain interest.”
Powell sees some promise in the larger-flowered Cattleya as an alternative. “They have fantastic flowers and scent, but flowering can be unpredictable and the sheath becomes discoloured.”