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ITALIAN PLANTS AND FLOWERS, A SUCCESSFUL MIX OF NATIVE PRODUCTS AND INNOVATION
A turnover of approximately three billion Euros, a fifth of which is dedicated to exports, and 20 thousand production firms, providing more than 110 thousand jobs only in the primary sector, without considering related activities. These are the figures of the Italian plant and nursery industry, a sector that counts on native plants as one of its best strongpoints. “From the Alps to Sicily – explains Lino Bloise, President of the National Italian Plant and Flower Association (www.pianteefioriditalia.it) – our regions offer many types of cut flowers and indoor or outdoor pot plants.” For example: the Lake Maggiore area (Lombardy-Piedmont) provides acid-loving plants that are considered to be among the best in Europe. The Sanremo area, on the other hand, is the homeland of cut flowers, “with products characterized by their uniform excellence,” emphasizes Bloise.
The sector prevalently consists of small to medium sized businesses, and this can sometimes be an advantage. “Family ownership – explains Bloise – allows businesses, especially those which produce cut flowers, to be flexible and adjust to market evolution. Sanremo, for example, has reinvented itself moving from chrysanthemums to the production of roses and ornamental foliage when the demand for chrysanthemums dropped. In the same way, producers in Campania have managed to change and are now known for their exports of aralia aspidistras”.
The strong presence of small and medium sized businesses also influences the sector’s commercial strategy. In general, nurseries have established direct contacts with North European markets thanks to professional mediators. Larger sized firms, however, can also rely on in-house structures for commercialisation. Small production units, which are in the majority, refer to private structures or cooperatives who manage the commercialisation and distribution to the markets. “These structures – explains Bloise – represent an important link in the chain, linking the production zones and wholesalers to the consumer.” Some large producers, mostly in nursery production, have even set up national and international distribution networks to directly commercialise products all over the world.
In particular, Mediterranean plants are exported to the Mediterranean area and to Central Europe. Cut flowers on the other hand are mainly sent to Northern Europe, Eastern Europe and the United States. Germany, in particular, is the largest market for cut flowers and herbs. «German consumers – explains Bloise – are prepared to pay for quality products». Potted plants such as buttercups, brooms, camellias, palm trees, citrus plants, herbs and daisies are the mainstay of Italian exports, and “are also sold through Dutch commercial networks,” according to Bloise.
«The Dutch – Bloise continues – can guarantee large volumes, but their products are ‘standardised’. Dutch flowers are globalised, the same for everyone. Italian producers, however, can offer our specialities: from buttercups to anenomies, from calendulas to daisies. The best buttercups in the world grow in Sanremo.” Quality pays, literally. The most prized varieties of Italian buttercups sell for more than a Euro a piece. “A rose cultivated in Kenya, on the other hand – emphasizes Bloise – costs little more than a tenth of this for the final consumer.”
One of the elements which have boosted the Italian offer over the last few years has been the innovation of both product and process, combined with specialisation in native plants and greater attention to seasonal produce. “We have had great success with poppies and buttercups” underlines Bloise, “In the last ten years we have seen considerable innovation in variety. As for innovation in production processes, Italian firms have also improved technology to obtain superior results”. The production of buttercups, in particular, has undergone a lot of work: the Italians have succeeded in cloning them, thereby obtaining higher quality produce to the rest of the world. “The price – highlights Bloise – has therefore risen considerably: +400% from 2002-2003.” The project was developed thanks to the collaboration between a hybridization firm and a public research institute which developed a cloning technique capable of preserving certain characteristics of the flower. The same has also happened in other areas with outdoor and indoor plants.
The Italian range, as noted above, is set apart from foreign products by its capacity to valorise flowers according to season or type, and consumers respond positively to this. “Central European and Scandinavian buyers – explains Bloise – prefer Italian products thanks to a widespread flower culture enabling them to appreciate the unique characteristics of Italian flowers”. For example in Northern Europe, including Germany, aromatic herbs produced in the area of Albenga in Liguria are highly valued. Moving further south, we come to the Pistoia area in Tuscany, one of the largest European producers of outdoor plants. Lastly, even further south, Sicily is home to cultivators of Mediterranean plants, often produced for export.
Italy also offers native character and innovation in the market for large outdoor plants, Mediterranean or otherwise. “In the last few years – Bloise explains – nurseries have been cultivating plants for urban use, according to market demand, known as “ready to use” plants. In practice these are trees selected to guarantee a higher spread of branches, or to be better suited to an urban environment, in order to facilitate pruning or to allow better access for public transport.