Monday, 20 March 2023, marked the beginning of the Persian New Year, aka Nowruz. The roughly two-week festival coincides with the spring equinox and typically fuels a boom in fresh-cut flower and potted plant sales in Iran. Abolfazl Iranshahi, co-owner of Middle East Flower Engineers Company in Iran’s horticultural heartland Pakdahst, near Tehran, cultivates a wide range of ornamental plants…and hope, even in trying times.
Although it started as an ancient Zoroastrian festival more than 3,000 years ago, most people are more familiar with the form of Nowruz in Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and the Kurdish parts of Iraq, Syria, and Türkiye widely practised today.
Traditionally celebrated as a time of rebirth and renewal, Nowruz has bloomed into a major commercial enterprise in Iran and beyond, with citizens of all ages splashing out on travelling, picnicking, traditional food, and colourful and flowery decorations for the traditional Haft-Seen (see box text). It’s also the perfect time to experience a range of festivals and community events.
“Nowruz is one of the most important festivals on the Iranian festival calendar. As early as one month before the Persian New Year, people start to come together and clean their houses, and this is a perfect time for selling flowers and plants, which have carved out a place as a Nowruz essential. To have them ready for market, growers schedule their Nowruz crops several months in advance,” explains 50-year-old houseplant grower Abolfazl Iranshahi. He was born in Khomeyn city as the son of a farmer and is a graduate of Tehran’s Tarbiat Modares University.
Nowruz is a moment of reflection in Farsi, meaning New Day and since 2019, is officially registered on the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Asked about his happy gains and lost opportunities in the year passed, Iranshahi says, “Despite a new round of sanctions amid mass protests and political unrest, we have had a good year. Though the country’s economy is in dire straits, we were lucky to expand our customer base for houseplants. In young plant production, we delivered high-quality plants and added several new products to our portfolio, including Philodendron, Alocasia, Dieffenbachia, Syngonium, Veronica, Eucalyptus, and Monstera.”
Iranshahi and his friend and business partner, Seyed Mohammad Mosavinia, founded Middle East Flower Engineers in 2005. Iranshahi recalls, “Back then, we came to the rescue of a grower who had imported Gerbera young plants from the Netherlands but had little experience and knowledge of growing them hydroponically. Mosavinia and I hold Masters’s Degrees in horticulture and could add valued insights and know-how. The result made it worthwhile because the grower was so happy, and via word-of-mouth, we quickly saw an increase in demand for our consulting services. However, sanctions and restrictive measures impeded Iranian growers from importing starting material, so we began growing young plants for local growers. Today, growing houseplants, from cutting to saleable plant, is our core business.”
Middle East Flower Engineers has 8ha of land, of which 3ha is greenhouse growing space. A reasonably good demand for houseplants has enabled the company to expand, with the construction of a new 1ha greenhouse currently underway.
Around 70 employees nurture approximately six million young plants and a half million houseplants annually. In young plant production (for other growers), the plant nursery specialises in Monstera, Philodendron, Eucalyptus, Zamioculcas, Ficus, Alocasia, Syngonium, Hibiscus, Poinsettia, Pelargonium, Dahlia, and miniature and garden roses. In the production of finished Ficus, Monstera, Philodendron, Alocasia, and Zamioculcas, a large portion of the business is wholesale, with the majority of farm shops, flower markets and garden centre customers within a one-hour drive. There’s also a more direct florist clientele.
Working directly with a florist gives the company better insights into the floral preferences of the end consumer. “Most Iranians prefer large-headed flowers be it rose or orchid. Colour preferences depend on the occasion flowers are used for. In cut flowers, demure white is very common. Naturally, this doesn’t apply to roses, where 50 per cent of the blooms are red. In plants, demand tends to be higher for flowering potted plants than for tropical foliage plants, but this also depends on the time of the year.”
Rising urbanisation, better education, Covid-19 lockdowns, and climate anxiety have all done their bit in the surge of demand for flowers and plants, and Iran is no different. “Florists take inspiration from the trendy products they see in lifestyle and floristry magazines. They ask for excitingly new colours, shapes and textures and less-common varieties. Most young Iranians are highly educated and want to live a modern life. Many women take to social media to learn more about flowers and plants. You would be surprised to see how crowded local flower exhibitions and festivals are. Iran is a nation of flower lovers. In Tehran alone, there are more than 2,500 florists.”
‘Awaken, the morning Nowruz breeze is showering the garden with flowers.’ This strophe, written by Iran’s famous poet Saadi (1210-1291), is another proof that Iranian society has deep roots in floral tradition. Iranshahi notes, “Iranians were decorating with flowers as early as ancient Persia. The last century boosted commercial floriculture, which has grown steadily since the past 20 years.”
Meanwhile, keeping pace with innovation can be challenging. Iranshahi thinks it is sad that sanctions block access to the advanced plant breeding and new genetics Iran’s ornamentals sector needs. This situation is frustrating because virtually no single link exists between horticulture and nuclear programmes. Iranshahi says, “At the national research level, there have been some breeding breakthroughs, but it is vital to collaborate with the leading countries in the field. Despite all the sanctions, millions of young plants and seeds are still coming into the country, albeit via indirect trade routes. As a result, planting material is much more expensive, negatively impacting the growers’ profits.”
According to Iranshahi, ornamental plant breeding in Iran predominantly concentrates in agriculture research centres and some universities. “Iran has a massive pool of PhD graduated young people. These dedicated people can be hired for relatively cheap monthly wages ranging between 150-250 USD. So, there are plenty of future investment opportunities for international breeding companies in Iran. People should not forget Iran is the cradle of many bulb and plant species commercially grown worldwide today.”
In the longer term, setting up a biocontrols company could be a good business idea and investment opportunity for foreigners, thinks Iranshahi. He says, “With a group of industry peers, we began importing biological materials, but due to western sanctions, volumes decreased significantly because of the high price. Some local experts are testing the waters with locally produced products, but this is all in its infancy. Foreign investors can use the cheap PhD students once sanctions are removed.”
As a non-chemical input, biological control is one of the solutions for more sustainable ornamental horticulture, an issue, Iranshahi thinks, involves ‘all talk and no action’. “Sustainability is a challenge, and there’s still a long way to go. Sky high prices have automatically led to a decrease in the use of pesticides. Alternatively, you can find some organic crop protection products in Iran to control pests and diseases. Our growers are also trying to use IPM methods to decrease the use of chemicals. Is there such a thing as a peat-free debate in Iranian horticulture? In cut flowers, growers shifted to perlite and soil cultures. Pot plant growers are trying many locally sourced cellulosic media. However, we are still forced to buy expensive cocopeat from India and Sri Lanka for producing young plants.”
Iran is in the arid zone; some 65 per cent of its territory has an arid or hyper-arid climate. Iranshahi elaborates, “Unfortunately, Iran has been suffering from unprecedented and widespread drought since the last decade. Water must come from very deep wells. However, the government doesn’t permit digging deeper, which puts the harvest under strain. In comparison with other crops, growers of ornamentals prefer to omit field crops. Our company has a water management programme in place to reuse drain water in a closed-loop hydroponic system. We also collect rainwater and snow melt.”
Roughly 12 per cent of Iran’s land is cultivable, with the western and north-western portions of the country having the most fertile soil and the highest potential for the production of ornamentals.
Open-field ornamental crop-growing is practised mainly in Mazandaran, Markazi, Tehran, Khuzestan, Alborz, and Fars Provinces. Recently, commercial flower growing has expanded to some of the nation’s other 31 provinces. The provinces of Tehran, Markazi, Khuzestan, Mazandaran, Alborz, and Isfahan host the largest concentration of greenhouses in Iran.
Currently, there are an estimated 20,000 flower and plant nurseries in Iran, with approximately 200 hectares in outdoor production and 3,400 hectares under protection (95 per cent plastic tunnels and five per cent glasshouses).
In Iran’s ornamental horticulture, greenhouses produce three main product groups: fresh-cut flowers (2,150ha), potted plants (900ha) and young plants (100ha).
Middle East Flower Engineers company sits in the county of Pakdasht in the province of Tehran. The capital’s buoyant capital, with 14 million inhabitants, is only 25km away. The megacity has defined the growth of Pakdahst’s ornamental horticulture sector, which today ranks among the country’s flower and plant production epicentres. Pakdahst alone has around 600 growers who operate from 700ha of greenhouse space.
Adapting to the range of temperatures in Pakdahst – one of the colder regions in Iran – brings with it its own set of challenges. Iranshahi elaborates, “Pakdasht is hot in summer but has a close to moderate winter climate. Luckily, we have a big source of natural gas in Iran, which is mostly available around the corner. With 0.03 USD/m3, natural gas in Iran is cheap. Electricity is not expensive either as it is partially subsided to support greenhouse growers.”
Regarding the availability of labour, Iranshahi sustains that there are ample domestic workers to meet employers’ labour needs. “The problem is we must invest time and energy in training them as they are usually not skilled. There’s also the risk that once they have completed the training, they quit for better-paid jobs in industrial sectors of the economy. The average salary of a worker in Iranian horticulture is between €100-€150 per month.”
When asked about the future of ornamental horticulture in Iran, Iranshahi is moderately optimistic. “The most significant challenge right now is inflation and the depreciation of the IRRial against foreign currencies. Its value decreases more and more, impacting purchasing power and limiting the local market for flowers and plants. On a positive note, our depreciating currency makes our products more and more attractive for exports. We can see an influx of buyers from neighbouring countries. So, one of the solutions is export; otherwise, we must scale down production or even shift to fresh produce,” concludes Iranshahi, who is a member and co-founder of the Iranian Society for Ornamental Plants (ISOP). “I am proud to have been one of the founding board members of ISOP, and we are so happy and lucky to have Dr Pejman Azadi as an active leader in the Iranian and global flower industry.”
Occupying pride of place amid the many festive celebrations is the Haft-Seen, a table decked with seven (haft in Farsi language) talismans beginning with the letter S- (seen in Farsi). Primary items include somaq (sumac berries), samanu (a pudding made of wheat germ), seeb (apple) and sombol (hyacinth) and several other flowers and plants. Also frequently spotted at the Haft Seen is a coin, candles, and a bowl with goldfish, each symbolising different things such as health, tolerance, nature, greenery, wealth, and light.
Message to our esteemed readership in Iran
( FCI ) مجله بین المللی فلورا کالچر
مجله بین المللی فلورا کالچر ( FCI ) به عنوان یک نشریه تخصصی صنعت گل و گیاهان زینتی پیشرو در تجارت به تجارت ( B2B ) است که در سال 1990 تاسیس شد و به صورت نسخه های چاپی و الکترونیکی با تعداد خوانندگان 117000 نفری در سراسر جهان منتشر می شود. این نشریه به تولید کنندگان گلهای شاخه بریده، گلهای گلدانی گلدار و برگ زینتی، برگساره ای، گیاهان پوششی، گیاهان چند ساله، درختان، بوته ها، بذرها، گیاهان جوان و پیازی ها سرویس می دهد.
مجله FCI منبع اصلی اطلاعات برای تولید کنندگان است، اما از زمانی که انجمن بین المللی تولیدکنندگان باغبانی (AIPH) این مجله را در می 2018 خریداری کرد، خوانندگان آن به طور قابل توجهی گسترش یافتند و شامل اصلاح کنندگان گیاهان زینتی، مدیران سالن های حراج، عمده فروشان گل، خرده فروشان حوزه باغ، مدیران سوپرمارکت ها، گلفروشان، ارائه دهندگان خدمات، محققان، کارمندان کارهای عمومی، دولت ها و مقامات محلی، ارائه دهندگان خدمات لجستیک، مدیران املاک و محوطه سازان فضای سبز می باشد. مجله FCI شهرت زیادی برای گزارش دقیق و واضح از نمایشگاه ها، کنفرانس ها و سایر رویدادهای صنعتی و همچنین مصاحبه های عمیق و ویژگی های مربوط به محصولات زینتی خاص، فناوری، اصلاح و تکثیر، بسترها و کشتهای پایدار، مزایده ها و حراج گل؛ بسته بندی و گزینه های جایگزین پلاستیک، حمل و نقل و زنجیره سرد، بیوفیلیا و برنامه ریزی شهر سبز دارد. هر نسخه از FCI دارای مقالات کاملی از یک کشور و صنعت باغبانی خاص آن است.
مجله FCI یک مجله خوش استیل و شیک هست، در حالی که لحن کلی آن آموزنده و متمرکز بر صنعت است. به ویژه ترکیبی از عکاسی حرفه ای با سبک روزنامه نگاری واضح، قابل دسترسی و جذاب دارد.
مجله FCI در ستون های ماهانه خود، از همکاران خارجی آگاه دعوت می کند تا در مورد رویدادها و سایر موضوعات اصلی تأثیرگذار بر صنعت باغبانی بحث کنند.
این نشریه از زمان راه اندازی آن در 1990 بارها تغییر کرده است. آخرین تغییر عمده در سال 2021 اتفاق افتاد که وب سایت آن با ظاهری به روز شده و ویژگی های جدید دوباره راه اندازی شد.
مجله FCI مستقیماً به افراد و از طریق انجمن های شریک FCI به صورت ماهیانه از قاره آمریکا تا استرالیا به دو صورت چاپی و دیجیتالی توزیع می شود. به عنوان مثال، AmericanHort، Asocolflores در کلمبیا، انجمن گیاهان زینتی ایران (ISOP) )، انجمن تجارت باغبانی HTA در انگلستان، OAIB (اتحادیه صادر کنندگان گیاهان و محصولات زینتی ترکیه)، OPF مکزیک، انجمن نهالستانها و فضای سبز استرالیا ؛ همه انجمن های شریک FCI هستند.
سازمان منتشر کننده مجله FCI، نهاد صدور مجوز برگزاری نمایشگاههای بین المللی حوزه باغبانی یعنی انجمن بین المللی تولیدکنندگان باغبانی (AIPH) است. این سازمان دارای انجمن های عضوی است که هدف اصلی آنها حمایت از توسعه گل و گیاهان زینتی است.
به طور خلاصه، مجله FCI از طریق گستردگی جهانی، تجارت شما را قادر می سازد تا برند خود را ارتقا داده و محصولات و خدمات شما را در بازارهای هدف جدید و موجود معرفی نماید.