We’re proud of our food, so why not British flowers? The UK spends more than £2 billion on cut flowers per year, but around 90% are imported. Meet the new breed of florists helping the homegrown industry blossom.
If there’s one thing the English are known for, outside of tea and biscuits, it’s that we know how to grow a jolly good garden. It may then come as surprise to find out that only 12% of flowers sold in the UK are British.
However if you’re you British flower grower, this 30-year long battle now looks like it may be at a turning point.
What happened to the British flower industry?
In the 1950s domestic production occupied the majority of the British flower market.
Things changed when the Dutch government invested heavily in their flower industry. State-led subsidies helped the industry grow quickly by producing flowers at a lower price and more efficiently than competitors — and so the world-famous Dutch flower industry was born.
By the 1980s British florists welcomed the opportunity to distinguish themselves by working with new varieties whilst benefiting from savings on competing products. This coincided with the parallel rise of the supermarket in Britain.
Supermarkets now occupy almost 60% of UK flower sales today, with florists contributing to around 25%. It’s interesting that this is opposite to the trend in other Western European countries where, ‘on average, florists account for the majority of sales and supermarkets contribute around a fifth’, according to Amy Gray, Horticultural Advisor to the National Farmers Union.
“In the 1970’s there were over 120 Chrysanthemum growers producing some 60 million stems a year. By 2013, there were only 3 growers left,” says Gray. It looks the supermarket habit is one we Brits find hard to shake.
How sustainable is your bunch of flowers?
The demand for a variety of fresh cut flowers all year round and a market driven by high volumes and low prices led to the high amount of imports into the UK. However, an awareness is gathering pace amongst growers and consumers alike who are conscious that it’s not only the price that’s unsustainable.
Dutch imports are mass-cultivated in huge fields and glasshouses across Europe and developing countries such as Africa or South America. These flowers are sprayed with chemicals preservatives – such as ethylene blocking chemicals to delay ripening – to see them through the journey where they are flown, or sometimes shipped, across time zones.
Then there’s the impact of this gargantuan supply chain on the health and labour standards of the people picking and processing these flowers around the world.
Why now’s the time for home-grown blooms to shine
British flowers can now begin to compete with cheap imports as subsidies are being phased out and the cost of production is rising. Perceptions are also starting to change as consumers are demanding traceability and quality.
Much like the growing market for specialist food producers, British growers can enjoy an integrity of provenance, freshness and an ability to offer something different from the mainstream. These qualities have captured independent florists who are seeing customers change their minds about what they want.
A new breed of British florist
British florists are growing their own and using seasonal stems instead of relying on flown. After making a documentary for the BBC about the history of the British flower industry in 2007, the Shropshire-based florist Juliet Glaves decided to take control and start a flower farm for her own use.
On the loss of the majority of UK growers, Glaves explains: “What was once a thriving industry had become a shadow of its former glory within the space of just 30 years. It seemed especially sad because our climate is perfect for flower-growing.”
Following in the footsteps of her nurseryman uncle and florist aunt, she bought a pig farm and set about overseeing the whole process — harvesting to arranging her own flowers.
The Tregothnan Estate sell 100% British flowers and foliage direct to consumers grown on the largest, historic, botanic garden in Cornwall. Set over 100 acres, house flowers were historically an important part of the gardeners’ duties.
Bella Percy-Hughes, who works at the gardens says: “We specialise in wild Cornish flowers and our florists are familiar with what we grow – they’re tasked with picking them. You get to know your favourites too and look forward to the time when they come around - there’s a real beauty in that.”
North London-based florist Hazel Gardiner has also noticed a gear change in demand: “Customers often ask about provenance. Many imported flowers have a significant carbon footprint, are grown using pesticides and have predominantly less scent. Naturally grown, seasonal British flowers have an intoxicating perfume and a non-identical beauty that elevates them above imported competition.”
Growers going wild and native
Britain’s climate is ideal for growing flowers in tune with natural rhythms of the year. Cornwall in particular has a unique microclimate, making it possible to cultivate varieties not available elsewhere. “We grow Manuka and put them in our edible bouquets” says Bella. “We’re the only place outside of New Zealand to grow it.”
Mid-June to mid-October is the height of the British flower season. At Tregothanan “tulips, stocks and daffs are in abundance at the moment but it changes weekly. As we get deeper into summer, the list gets wider and we savour the season ,” says Bella.
Currently, there is no overarching grower association to promote the British cut flower industry. However, Yorkshire farmer Gill Hodgson set up not-for-profit group Flowers from the Farm in 2011 to encourage more homegrowing in order to reduce imports and make less familiar varieties available to the public. With now over 500 members, it’s the UK’s biggest network of cut flower growers on a mission to “get local blooms back into every vase”.
So, will you be backing British blooms this Mother’s Day?