The era of cheap orchids may soon be over | gardening tips
A A few weekends ago, while visiting one of my botanical buddies in the Netherlands, I had the most eye-opening nursery visit of my life. During lunch he announced, with characteristic Dutch frankness: “Do you want to see a 2m room of orchids?” You should take pictures, because after this winter it will only be seen in the history books. With such an offer, who could say no?
A short drive later we could open the doors to one of the largest butterfly orchid growers in the Netherlands, which had announced only earlier in the day that it was closing shop after decades in business. . Greenhouses the size of football pitches had been completely emptied, with plants evacuated to smaller sections to save heating costs. After a good 10 minutes of walking through abandoned hallways, I entered a foggy room – easily double the size of baggage claim halls at most international airports – where tightly packed tables of plants sat in a full and dazzling flower.
“That’s where I experimented with creating new cultivars. Everything will soon be thrown away, take what you want. It’s hard to visualize the actual number of 2m factories, but as I walked through room after room, I began to understand why almost everything had been run by robots, moving oceans of factories destined for markets from Dubai to Dunstable.
Recent energy price spikes have had a debilitating effect on the producer, as heating these huge landscapes to subtropical levels was one of the major costs of the business. It’s a phenomenon that apparently didn’t just affect this provider. Some industry insiders predict that up to half of those growers may be out of business by the end of winter.
The business model of many of these growers was based on satisfying the demands of giant retailers for ever cheaper plants – conditions that could only be met through the economies of scale resulting from large scale growth with tiny margins. But that left very little slack in the system to deal with any variations in costs. “We sell €1 plants that now cost €5 to make. It’s a disaster,” he said.
I’ve always been torn about plant prices. On the one hand, the drive to make factories ever cheaper has resulted in the growing dominance of a few industry giants who stock an ever-narrowing range of mass-produced offerings. On the other hand, it means species such as Moth Orchids have gone from being a collectible for the wealthy to something within reach of almost anyone at the supermarket checkout.
However, the downside is that, like fast fashion, these artificially low prices have created a throwaway culture where once-prized plants are simply thrown away when they stop flowering. With the current cost of living crisis, it’s hard to argue that we should all be paying more for luxuries like plants, but it’s been years of undervaluing their true cost that has led us into a very precarious situation. While the ripple effects have yet to hit our shelves, perhaps over the next few months we’ll begin to learn to truly appreciate these everyday wonders.
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