Nouvelle gardeners go vegetable crazy

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The Independent Online

A quiet revolution has swept through the humble vegetable patch. Experts believe that sales of vegetable seeds are outstripping those of flower seeds for the first time.

But forget plain old greens. We are about to enter the age of the psychedelic vegetable, as the nation's gardeners turn their back on tradition in favour of weird, and allegedly wonderful, varieties of veg - so open wide for the orange cauliflower, the white cucumber and the black tomato.

Andrew Tokeley, horticultural manager at Thompson & Morgan, one of Britain's biggest retail seed firms, says: "If you were to go back say six years and asked us what our top 50 best sellers were, of them how many were vegetable, you'd have had six, maybe seven. Now it's virtually 50:50. In our top three now, there are two vegetables.

"We do a potato catalogue now which we wouldn't have done four or five years ago. If the trend continues, that split in our top 50 will go maybe 30 vegetable, 20 flowers. More and more people want to know what they're eating, following the GM scares, but also because some of the supermarket veg tastes crap."

Over at Mr Fothergill's, and Johnson's - two leading brands brought together as one firm - the remorseless rise of the vegetable has been watched with amazement. "Our veg sales have been growing over the past four or five years," says Charlie Pattisson, Fothergill's seed product manager. "They are now very strong sellers. People are thinking about healthy eating.

"Veg sales outstrip flower sales, with only Night Scented Stock and Sweet Peas appearing in our top 15 varieties. In the last two years, sales of herbs and salads have increased markedly."

What might be called exotic, or cordon bleu varieties, are booming, too. Thompson & Morgan's Andrew Tokeley says: "The coloured carrots are really going to come into force next year. We've had a yellow carrot, which has higher beta-carotene levels. We do things like a white cucumber, and a yellow cucumber ... there is this new black tomato."

Dr Colin Randel, one of Britain's leading authorities on commercial seed culture and vegetable product manager at Thompson and Morgan, believes that health concerns are, in part, driving the consumer to buy more exotic hues. "Some of the colours are going to take off even more over the next year, because of healthy eating - the lycopene that you find in red lettuce, for instance, and the coloured carrot," he says. "This spring we launched a purple-skinned carrot with an orange interior."

And there are some real oddities in the pipeline. "There's a really nice orange cauliflower that's been developed," says Dr Randel. "I was walking round the field munching them raw last year... we'll be offering it as soon as there is seed available."

Bob Sherman at the Henry Doubleday Research Association says: "People are used to seeing red tomatoes in supermarkets. They might just possibly get to see a pinky one or a yellow one, but they won't get to see any of the more ugly ones ... We have 160 varieties of tomato in our collection."

But pride of place for the veg with the strangest roots - historical ones - is the carrot. "[The] carrot is orange because it was predominantly grown in Holland, and that is the national colour," reveals the HDRA's chief executive, Susan Kay-Williams, "Roots originally varied in colour from white to purple to red, but patriotic Dutch growers selected the roots in the colour of their royal family - the House of Orange."

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