Eliza Doolittle, eat your heart out: the flower market has crept into the supermarket. But high-street florists aren't worried - yet. By Rosalind Sharpe
In a large, bare hall loud with air-conditioning, a simple production line is in operation. At intervals of about a foot, hundreds of identical bunches of tulips are gliding along a conveyor belt. As the bunches pass, groups of workers remove them, add bits, put them back: five-pointed crimson buds, a twist of cellophane, a couple of elastic bands, a Tesco label. Today it is tulips; tomorrow it might be mixed bunches for Sainsbury's, in which case the teams will work to a different recipe - so many of each different type of flower, so many bits of greenery, a specific kind of wrapping, an expert shake to settle the arrangement into the required pattern. The resulting, astonishingly uniform bouquets are packed in boxes and buckets, loaded into 40ft refrigerated lorries and distributed all over the UK.

This is the Lingarden flower factory (or more accurately flower-packing company) in Spalding, Lincs. At this time of year, the remaining Lincolnshire daffodil fields are just going over. At the peak of the season, Lingarden, which began life as a growers' co-operative, exports 500,000 bunches of local daffodils every day; it also deals in bulbs (measured in thousands of tons) and locally produced vegetables.

About seven years ago, it moved tentatively into a new line of business: buying flowers from all over the world and packaging them for the supermarket chains, which were just beginning to sell them. The business grew so quickly that it threatened to swamp the co-op and had to be hived off. Now every week Lingarden receives 1.5 million "stems of raw material" as the people here say, and turns them into the bunches and mixed sprays you see in Safeway, Sainsbury's, Asda and Tesco.

Forget Eliza Doolittle and her won-der-ful roses. The three leading flower sellers now are Marks & Spencer (whose packing house, Flowerplus, is just up the road from Lingarden), Tesco and Sainsbury's. The multiples together supply us with more than a quarter of the flowers we buy (up from 13 per cent in 1990); but - this is a statistic to strike fear into the hearts of the nation's 7,500 independent florists - only 2 per cent of supermarket customers buy flowers. The potential clearly is enormous, if the supermarkets choose to exploit it. If they do, high-street florists may go the same way as high-street grocers, butchers and greengrocers: in other words, a lot of them will go out of business.

Selling flowers was a logical step for the supermarkets. They already sold fresh produce, so they knew about the "cold chain", the system of refrigerated lorries, aircraft and warehouses that was being perfected by flower and fruit importers to whisk perishables from all over the world, in defiance of the seasons. The infrastructure that could deliver beans from Kenya could also deliver roses from Kenya (surprisingly enough, the country more commonly associated with big game has some of the largest rose nurseries in the world). But giant supermarkets don't like dealing with lots of small suppliers; it is too complicated. Hence the existence of Lingarden, and a handful of other packers. They deal with the growers, pass the orders down the line, co-ordinate the imports and package the goods.

Another of the packing companies is Bellbourne, the market leader in supplying flowers to "non-traditional" outlets, such as convenience stores and garage forecourts. They supply on a sale-or-return basis, which is why the flowers sometimes look so forlorn, between the barbecue briquettes and the Castrol. The retailer has no incentive to look after them and the ethylene in the exhaust fumes kills them off.

The packing companies, representing multiple-outlet retailers, are now the largest buyers of flowers from growers. The growers - or at least the more adaptable ones, who have what the marketing director at Lingarden refers to as the "right mentality" - are happy to have found such a sizeable market. They have learnt to tailor their output to the supermarkets' requirements. For example, if Lingarden requests a new variety or colour of rose, the Kenyan nurserymen pride themselves on being able to develop productive bushes from grafts in just 18 months.

It wouldn't be true to say that the supermarkets had imposed standardisation on the growers, because the importers were already doing that. But the supermarkets certainly don't encourage rugged individualism. The mantra of their buyers is consistency of supply. They need to be able to stock exactly the same goods from Greenwich to Glasgow, which means that they need staggeringly large quantities of identical things. When the things are flowers, this requirement seems to go against nature.

In fact, the mass production of flowers is about as natural as the practice of feeding ground-up cows to cows. Flowers are increasingly grown for export wherever there is a frost-free climate and a plentiful supply of cheap labour: Kenya and Zimbabwe, India and Zambia, places where you would not expect to find fields of paeonies or delphiniums. The Colombians, by comparison, are old hands. They have been exporting flowers for nearly 30 years, and grow more than any other country in the world. Half the carnations we buy (and carnations are our favourite cut flower) come from Colombia. Like other traditional growers in Israel, Guernsey, Turkey and Spain, they are being squeezed by the newcomers.

But all over the world, the technology is more or less the same. The flowers - roses, chrysanthemums, alstroemeria, lilies, the stock-in-trade of any British flower stall - are likely to be grown in plastic greenhouses or polythene tunnels, where computers control the humidity, lighting and supply of nutrients. They are grown in beds whose soil has been altered beyond recognition by conditioners and fertilisers, and they are doused with pesticides. This treatment is deemed necessary to reach the standards of perfection demanded by consumers in Europe and the United States.

But the most eerie thing is the uniformity of the flowers: the variety, colour, size of bloom, stem-length and number of buds per spray will all have been specified, months in advance, in agreements between the growers and the buyers.

These flowers have also been bred to last. That was the growers' response to demands, especially from the supermarkets, for flowers that would survive the cold chain and still have a long vase life. The growers were successful: with the right handling, some stores are now confident enough to guarantee that their flowers will last a week or a fortnight.

But consumers are fickle. The word has now gone out that what we really want are flowers that smell nice. Back to fragrance! The technologists in Colombia and Kenya are working on it.

Meanwhile, the independent florists, most of them run locally and idiosyncratically as they have been since the floristry trade was established in the 1890s, seem relaxed about the supermarkets' encroachment. Perhaps their daily contact with so much beauty raises them above the scrum of competition. (Though, for the record, of all the people I talked to about flowers, the only one who used the words "beautiful" and "pretty" was the buyer from M&S.) Then again, a quarter of their business comes from funerals, a recession-proof area that the multiples, who deal mainly in everyday flowers, show no signs of entering.

But florists are used to being marginalised. As Caroline Marshall-Foster, editor of the Florist, told me, "The general perception is that people become florists because they are too thick to go into hairdressing. Whereas in fact it takes as long to qualify as a florist as it does to become an accountant."

The common reaction to my questions about the impact of supermarkets was that they present an opportunity as well as a threat. This recognises that although the supermarkets, with their formidable advertising budgets and selling power, may take some of the florists' business, overall they may expand the market for everybody, something the florists have been trying to do for years. At present, the British spend just pounds 15 a head on fresh flowers every year (which places us 15th in the world league), most of it on Valentine's Day, on Mother's Day and at Christmas. If the supermarkets can persuade many more of us to start buying flowers every week, rather than just for special occasions, the florists will be grateful. And the people at Lingarden will have to add another dozen or so conveyor belts to the five they have already.