In the international market for cut flowers and foliage, the major tropical flowers (or exotics) are Orchids and Anthuriums. Other important products falling within this product group are Protea’s (originally from South Africa) and of course Heliconias, Alpinia, Gingers, Strelitzias (birds of paradise) and to a lesser extent Calatheas.
Note that tropical flowers (even Heliconias) are not only grown in the tropics, but also in greenhouses in Germany, Italy, France, Japan, USA and, of course, The Netherlands. In The Netherlands, for instance, about 6 or 7 growers are growing Heliconias, noticeably smaller varieties like Jamaican Dwarf.
Tropical flowers account for a very small portion of the international flower trade (far below 5%). As a result, the international flower trade has structured itself almost completely according to the requirements in handling traditional flowers: low temperatures during post-harvest and transportation, the so-called cold chain.
In the European market, tropical flowers are mainly distributed by 1) specialised importers, who usually combine tropical flowers and foliage, working with positive temperature distribution chains. The number of these specialised importers is rather limited (about 20 in all of Europe). The rest of the tropical flowers are distributed by 2) non-specialised importers or local wholesalers who buy tropical flowers as a supplement to their standard assortment.
The first group of importers are characterised by very high quality requirements in combination with demand for considerable volumes per variety. The second group of importers are in most cases not very familiar with exotic products, often request irregular shipments and have specific quality requirements. It is often difficult for exporters to build a sustainable export business if only supplying to the second type of importing wholesalers. It requires constant sales efforts to find sufficient (often small) buyers to sell all available products.
The main international markets for tropical flowers are the European and North American markets (USA and Canada). In general, it can be said that the European market is characterised by stricter quality requirements than the North American market. The role of the Dutch (and German) flower auctions in the tropical flower trade is considerable. Most tropical flowers and foliage are directly exported to European and North American importers / importing wholesalers. Nevertheless, exporters that are able to supply consistent and large volumes of high quality should determine if selling through the auctions is a viable option as this may offer them full sales certainty. Sales via the auctions is often organised with the assistance of a local import agent who arranges eventual re-packing and distribution of the products.