Ben Cross is on a crusade to promote British flowers for the benefit of other growers, consumers and the planet.
Alstroemeria, also known as Peruvian lily, is a native of South America. Their attractively patterned flower clusters might look delicate, but don’t be fooled. When hand-picked, they’re incredibly long-lasting in a vase.
Unfortunately, says Ben Cross, a fourth-generation grower of British alstroemeria, too many of those we see in bouquets these days are weeks old, treated with chemicals, wrapped in plastic and imported from abroad.
Cross, 39, a former marine biologist, is the driving force at the helm of Crosslands Flower Nursery, a family-run business which has been growing British blooms since 1936. The nursery produces and delivers millions of alstroemeria stems yearly. His British Flowers Rock campaign, launched in 2014, has seen him champion the British flower industry and raise awareness of the environmental costs associated with refrigerated flowers shipped and flown in.
Flower farming is his heritage. “My great-grandparents first began growing as part of the government’s Land Settlement Association (LSA). Workers from depressed industrial areas were allocated land to work and farm in rural areas,” he explains.
The scheme, founded in 1934 with the support of the Plunkett Foundation and the Carnegie Trust, was set up at the height of the Great Depression. It was a time of high unemployment. “My great-grandparents were one of the original families that took the government up on the offer, and moved from Abertillery in Wales to a small-holding settlement in Sidlesham, near Chichester.
“My grandad joined them after the Second World War and met my nan, a girl from Portsmouth. The LSA aimed to get people up and running in growing, farming and horticulture. The leg-up it gave us allowed my family to buy their own bit of land, and we moved to Crosslands Flower Nursery in Walberton, near Arundel, in 1957.”
It’s increasingly rare these days for a nursery or flower farm to have been passed down in this way. “There aren’t many of us left. These days, over 90 per cent of cut flowers are imported,” says Cross, “hence my British Flowers Rock campaign. Compared to even 30 years ago, there’s not so many established flower farmers still growing in Britain today. Unlike other farming sectors, the British flower industry doesn’t get funding in the form of grants for modernising greenhouses.
“For a long time, I’ve felt that more could be done to raise the profile of British flowers. For a start, labelling them clearly in supermarkets. As with food, it’s important for consumers to know the provenance of the flowers they’re buying, and their carbon footprint. Often, the chemicals used on flowers aren’t mentioned on the packaging. There’s a great deal of plastic and packaging used in the flower industry.”
Cross’s crusade to promote British flowers isn’t just for personal gain, but for the benefit of other growers, consumers and the planet. “By 2014, after years of trying to get in touch with the media and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to open up the conversation, I felt frustrated. It felt like no one was listening,” he says.
“I’d had enough of flower farming being left out of these conversations around sustainability."
There need to be more Jamie Oliver or Jimmy Doherty-style spokespeople for British flowers. Progress is too slow. The British flower industry is years behind the food industry when it comes to education and awareness. But when people do find out more, they’re shocked by the environmental cost associated with imported flowers, not just the air miles, but also storage, packaging, handling, water use and chemicals. If you stop to think about the plastic packet of flower food supplied with a bunch and the tape attaching it to millions of bunches, it all adds up and is quite overwhelming.”
Cross also urges us to consider flower waste. “Just as food waste is a problem because wonky fruit and vegetables are thrown away, so too are slightly gnarly stems thrown away because they don’t meet supermarket specifications to be a certain weight or look a certain way. But wonky flowers still look wonderful in a vase.”
According to Cross, alstroemeria thrives naturally in this country. His grandfather and father decided to specialise in it during the 1970s energy crisis. “It’s a cool crop, which means it doesn’t take a lot of heat in the winter. It’s also a dry crop, which means we only need to water it for 20 minutes once a month in winter and every 10 days in summer. When we do heat our greenhouses, we use locally sourced, sustainable biomass fuel pellets.
“They don’t need chemicals or to be chilled and travel well out of water, so I can send bunches around the UK with next-day delivery with a normal courier service in a recyclable box.”
Crosslands opts not to use artificial lighting, so as not to cause light pollution. When there are fewer daylight hours, his picking days reduce from seven to three days a week, giving him time to focus on carrying out maintenance on the greenhouses.
Cross grows without pesticides, using biological controls (such as the Encarsia wasp to tackle whitefly, and predatory Phytoseiulus persimilis to prevent red spider mite). The nursery is also sustainable in the sense that less than five per cent of its plants are replanted each year.
“We’ve got hundreds of flower beds, but this year we only replanted three beds. A lot of our plants are 20-30 years old and still produce good, saleable stems. With other types of crop, we’d need to be gutting out the greenhouse of all the old plant material, sterilising the soil, and using loads of peat. As it is, we don’t need to do that. This is because our alstroemeria aren’t cut flowers, but hand-picked flowers. Alstroemeria should be picked from the root rather than cut. If you cut them, you’re left with a short stubby stem attached to the root which will inhibit growth – whereas picking them stimulates growth.”
Cross sells directly to consumers (“Anyone can message me on Instagram”), as well as to florists, markets, cafés and restaurants that champion local, sustainably sourced produce. He is also stocked in Morrisons.