UK cut flowers fall under the spotlight

Importance of UK provenance helps British growers make their case following steep decline of cut-flower market.

Cut flowers: supermarkets are now keener on UK provenance but many florists remain less concerned - image: Morguefile
Cut flowers: supermarkets are now keener on UK provenance but many florists remain less concerned - image: Morguefile

What British flowers will be available for Mothering Sunday (30 March) and Easter (18-21 April), the two biggest flower giving periods of the year after Valentine's Day?

Following the furore over the £195 Interflora/RHS Ultimate Flower Bouquet, wrongly marketed as containing varieties 50 per cent sourced from Britain for Valentine's Day.

Growers have said they would like to see a shift in buying trends towards more seasonal flowers than roses on Valentine's Day, which almost inevitably come from Kenya and Colombia. Even English grower David Austin Roses has cut-flower roses grown in Colombia, Ecuador and Kenya.

Industry decline

The issue is certainly high-profile. In BBC2's Great British Garden Revival, presenter Rachel de Thame investigated the decline of Britain's cut-flower industry. She visited New Covent Garden and highlighted that 90 per cent of cut flowers are imported. So what volume can UK growers supply?

York-based Flowers from the Farm owner Gill Hodgson says she does not know the amount of UK flowers available currently but adds: "We care about the 'British-grown' label. We only use it genuinely and we want to create a brand where people think of British-grown as signifying quality."

She adds: "Right now, British growers have superb tulips grown in Lincolnshire, stunning anemones and gloriously scented narcissi from Cornwall and the Scillies."

English Flower Company owner Jayne Meadows also does not know how many UK-grown flowers are available but says a shift in buying trends towards seasonal homegrown flowers including alstroemeria would cut carbon footprints.

Louise Curley, author of The Cut Flower Patch, says: "Just as we've done with food, we need to be looking at sourcing locally-grown flowers and growing our own. Apart from the environmental cost, imported blooms mean we have lost touch with the seasons."

Hodgson and celebrity cut-flower evangelists such as Sarah Raven have pushed the UK-grown message. Supermarkets are now keener on UK provenance, even though many florists do not appear too worried.

Of 12 florists contacted by HW, none had more than two varieties of UK-grown stock available for the Interflora Ultimate Bouquet, which included red chrysanthemums, red tulips, white hyacinth, ivy and myrtle. Red tulips and ivy were the only available British-grown flowers and just a quarter of the florists had either in stock.

Even one of the country's biggest wholesalers that specialises in British-grown flowers, Pratley of London's New Covent Garden Market, had only the red tulips of the 10 blooms in the bouquet available from this country.

On the other hand, former Zwetloots commercial director Guy Moreton, who now runs MorePeople, suggests that importing has the same carbon footprint as heating in the UK. He adds that Interflora florists buy plenty of UK-grown flowers when they are available.

The biggest UK cut-flower grower, Winchester Growers, has 1,000ha of daffodils in production and bought New Generation Daffodils, which has 45ha, last September, making it Britain's biggest daffodil producer. Owned by Belgium-based Univeg, it had a turnover of £51m in 2012. It also produces tulips, gladioli, lilies and other seasonal flowers to be sold into UK retailers including Waitrose.

HTA regional manager Andrew Whelan was a buyer for World Flowers until eight years ago. He says the cut-flower market "collapsed" with a 20 per cent fall in 2008 after "people gave up buying flowers as gifts" when the credit crunch hit.

Around that time, UK-based cut-flower companies including World Flowers and Lingarden consolidated or dropped out of the market.

Another grower added that the UK revival is "very much artisan and local. It's a good source of British cut flowers for locals in season but realistically there's not enough volume there year round." He added that British growers are mainly most reliable for foliage in bouquets.

Glasshouse-grown chrysanthemums also fell out of the market when Donaldsons sold up in 2010. Owner Colin Frampton said then: "It's the usual story of supermarket price pressure, high energy costs and cheap imports wiping out margins and making further investment not worth the risk."

Mass market

National Cut Flower Centre manager Lyndon Mason says there is a hype around UK-grown but it does not translate into the mass market. "It never ceases to amaze me how much publicity Gill Hodgson generates for British flowers," he adds.

"Her growers have certainly succeeded in getting them back on the map and also broadening the range beyond the limited offering available in supermarkets.

"However, having said that, while I do not know the total area of flowers produced by Flowers from the Farm, I suspect that the bulk of UK flower production is still in the hands of a dozen or so large traditional producers with the main crops being daffs, tulips, column stocks, asters, lilies, sunflower and peony, with most of these going through supermarkets.

"For home production, I would say that we are perhaps seeing a slight increase year on year, but it's not significant. The main UK crops available through the supermarkets will be daffs and tulips and a few column stocks coming on stream."

Market share Bulbs and flower sector 3.5 per cent of HDC income

For growers turning over more than £60,000 a year, the Horticultural Development Company (HDC) says the bulbs and outdoor flowers sector is the smallest of its eight sector panels, contributing around 3.5 per cent of annual HDC income.

The sector encompasses daffodil bulb and flower production, forced bulbs, other bulb crops such as tulips and gladioli, and outdoor cut flowers and foliage.

In 2010-13, the HDC's income was £20m (0.5 per cent of turnover of £60,000+ turnover growers). This means about £700,000 from cut flower and bulb growers, adding up to £140m turnover. One grower, Winchester Growers, accounted for more than £50m of that.

The HDC cannot split the numbers between bulbs and cut flowers or give figures for indoor cut flower growing.

The UK fresh cut flower and indoor plant market is worth £2.2bn a year at retail level.

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