November 1, 2012
Taking the market by stormBY LORRAINE FLANIGAN
If plants were celebrities, Medinilla magnifica would be Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears and Lady Gaga all rolled into one big, bodacious plant, bursting with voluptuous pink blooms. Like a true celebrity, Medinilla magnifica made a stunning debut earlier this year at the Canada Blooms Flower and Garden Festival. And like many an overnight success, it took years of hard work, dedication, and trial and error to bring this exotic new tropical plant to market.
“Boy, oh, boy,” says Ted Oorsprong of Northend Gardens, the company that launched the plant. “I created so much work for myself. I have spent four years working with our partners in Holland to build a market for Medinilla in North America and, like I’ve always said, if it was easy, anyone could do it.”
As challenging as it has been — and continues to be — to bring Medinilla to market, perhaps the easiest task was finding this unique new plant in the first place. Oorsprong combs the world looking for unique plants suitable for a North American niche market, and the irony behind the discovery of Medinilla is that it was sitting in plain sight. While sipping coffee during a visit to an uncle in Holland a few years ago, Oorsprong spotted the potted plant sitting on the windowsill. After Oorsprong expressed interest in the unusual plant, his uncle offered to introduce him to one of only two Medinilla growers in The Netherlands.
Since then the Dutch growers have made three trips to Northend’s Jordan Station farm in Ontario, and most recently, Oorsprong’s son spent several weeks at the grower’s facilities in Holland, learning the techniques used to grow the plant in The Netherlands. In addition, Oorsprong has been working with Dr. Theo Blom, a good friend and retired professor at the University of Guelph’s Department of Plant Agriculture, who has been helping to adapt these techniques to the Canadian climate.
“We’ve invested in special technology that’s very similar to orchid growing,” explains Oorsprong, “but there are still challenges to make it work.” That’s why Oorsprong and his staff are still experimenting with temperatures and light levels to increase the rate and successful development of blooms.
Constant communication with the Dutch growers continues to be important. “We share information back and forth with Holland,” says Oorsprong, whose earliest challenge was to improve the success rate of the cuttings shipped from the Dutch growers. When the first shipment arrived at the Northend greenhouses, only 50 per cent rooted successfully. After two years of experimenting with various packing and shipping techniques, Northend now boasts a 90 per cent success rate.
And getting the permits from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency was no easy task, either. “It took six months to get the permits,” explains Oorsprong.
The challenge of learning to grow Medinilla is only half the story. The other half is about marketing. “We made the decision to put 100 per cent into our marketing efforts,” says Oorsprong, “with a new web site, Facebook page, Twitter account, plant information tags, printed sleeves, TV appearances, giveaways, and trade shows across North America.” Since its launch in January 2012, www.medinilla.ca has achieved a whopping 16,500 hits.
With such a concerted marketing effort, Oorsprong plans to transition production entirely to Medinilla within five years. Oorsprong was brought up in the family business established in 1962; he took over in 1987. Three years later, he moved the farm to its current location in Jordan Station, Ont., and he and his wife Carrie became equal partners in the business. Over the years, the two successfully developed mum and poinsettia programs, but seven years ago the nursery ceased poinsettia production when the market moved to Costa Rica, where production costs are cheaper. And over the last three years, Northend has phased out mum production, too, as the U.S. dollar exchange rate decreased, resulting in the decline of the export market.
Northend now ships Medinilla magnifica as far west as British Columbia and as far south as Texas. “We’re three years away from supplying the wedding market,” explains Oorsprong, who is also working on new colours for this exotic plant.
“Medinilla is like orchids were 10 to 15 years ago,” explains Oorsprong. “They used to be exclusive, but now you can buy them everywhere.” With hard work and a savvy marketing plan, Northend is well on the way to making Medinilla magnifica the next big thing.
Lorraine Flanigan is a Toronto-based freelance garden writer.