Changes in the Chinese horticulture industry

Azaleas at Hongyue in Haining, China.

Over the last twenty years, the production of plants and flowers in China has grown at a huge pace. Ten years ago, when I started visiting China, it was easy to see the scale of production, but the quality was far behind that in the West.

That has all changed. Over the last month, I have visited Chengdu in Sichuan Province for the opening of the AIPH-approved International Horticultural Expo and Hangzhou to visit businesses and see the 2024 World Garden Show in Haining.

I have been involved in the jury for all our Expos in China, over the last decade. This time I was really taken aback.

What I saw was a much wider range of plant species and varieties and a much higher quality in plants and application in the gardens and surrounding landscape. Really, as good, if not better, than anything you could see anywhere else in the world. I wanted to understand what has been going on in the last few years and what are growers in China having to manage today.

The reason why many of the plants were doing so well was because they are using more plants, bred in China, that thrive in the local conditions. New Chinese-bred varieties represented 30 per cent of the new plant awards at the World Garden Show in Haining, up from nought per cent just six years ago.

While Western breeders have been anxiously holding back on sharing their varieties in China, worried about the lack of respect for Plant Breeders’ Rights (PBR) rules, Chinese growers are getting on with breeding their own and doing an excellent job they are doing too.

PBR rules in China are now very good, although there are still concerns about enforcement; but while the west waits, it won’t be long before the rest of the world will be looking at bringing new varieties from east to west instead.

But growth for Chinese growers is not as easy to come by as it was. The slowdown in the Chinese economy has dramatically reduced government procurement as big construction projects are cancelled. Growers are having to focus much more on stimulating demand from consumers. The focus of Hongyue company, which is hosting the 2024 World Garden Show in Zhejiang Province, is clear. They are targeting home gardens. You might think that in China, where most people live in apartments, that is a dubious strategy. However, although the percentage with a garden is small, a small percentage of a huge population is still a big market. They rely heavily on online sales. I met with ‘Uncle Wang’, a social media influencer with over four million followers. He does a video or two and the result can be huge orders. The industry has to respond fast to meet the peaks of demand, but this is the way the Chinese shop, rather than through Garden Centres, which hold a much lower market share.

Interestingly, the challenge for growers is less about market demand and more about other issues. They are finding it hard to persuade the banks to invest as plant stock is not considered an asset, and land availability is becoming a real problem.

Last year Chinese policy changed to require that all agricultural land needs to be used for agricultural production. This means that if it has been used for something else it needs to be restored to agriculture. This has left many growers struggling to expand and even fighting to keep the land they are already using.

But, while they deal with these issues, the fact remains that ornamental horticulture production in China will continue to grow and probably more than anywhere else. This industry is professionalising fast, and the opportunities for non-Chinese investment and involvement are greater than they have ever been. Supported by the China Flower Association, Chinese growers are doing an amazing job, and the world needs to keep watching.

↑ Back to top