Growers scent a revival in UK’s cut-flower industry

Britain’s surviving flower farmers are diversifying to appeal to new audiences, and new entrepreneurs are emerging

The Land Gardeners, Bridget Elworthy and Henrietta Courtauld © Adrian Sherratt/Alamy

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In 1928, an exciting new flower shop opened in Pimlico, London, called Flower Decoration. Its owner, Constance Spry, would become the great-grandmother of modern floral design and the first real “celebrity florist”. At 42, with two decades of work in education behind her, Spry was an intrepid revolutionary in her own quiet, dignified way. She fearlessly loosened the rigid constraints of contemporary floristry with natural, flowing arrangements inspired by the Dutch masters and her own, very English garden, where she also grew many of the flowers for her shop. In fact, almost all the ingredients she had at her disposal would have been both seasonal and British grown. At that time, flowers such as mimosa, imported by train from the south of France, were known as “exotics”. The seasons, therefore, guided all her compositions. For the next few decades, her stand at the annual Chelsea Flower Show pulled in the crowds, who were enthralled by her daring combinations of cultivated flowers and more unexpected materials, ranging from “dead” flowers and weeds to vegetables and wild hedgerow branches, all tastefully woven together with Spry’s usual style and elegance.

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Constance Spry in 1951 © Maurice Ambler/Hulton Archive/Getty Images Yet it could be argued Spry was also the unwitting accoucheuse of a floral beast. Published in 1934, her first book, Flower Decoration, was a bestseller. Many more followed. Soon flower arranging was both a popular pastime and an acceptable career choice for young women. As interest in flower arranging grew, so did demand for flowers. Not everyone had Spry’s innate gardener’s feel for nature, though, and the new army of floral artists wanted access to every flower in every season. They wanted them in quantity and at the best price. By the 1970s, the British cut flower industry was in steep decline. It simply could not compete with imported flowers, which were generally cheaper and more sought after. In the 1970s, for example, there were 120 chrysanthemum growers registered in the UK; by 2013 they had dwindled to just three. Yet demand for cut flowers continued to rise and imported blooms benefited, with their value rising from £122m in 1998 to £691m in 2014.

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Their ‘Super Parrot’ tulips © Jack Neville Thankfully, the tide seems to be turning and following a familiar pattern. I’ve always thought the food and flower industries to be natural bedfellows and, within the former, there has been a huge and noticeable move in recent years towards ethically sourced, seasonal and local ingredients. Restaurants are proud to support the British food industry and keen to promote artisanal producers, too. There is hardly a menu left in the kingdom that doesn’t proudly list the origins of its produce. Now, the British flower trade is gradually following suit, as surviving flower farmers diversify to appeal to new audiences and new entrepreneurs influence the business.