The rise of the `gesture society' has seen expenditure on flowers double in 10 years
GULPING down the scent of a long-stemmed blue flower, Richard Felton remembers his days in Paris. "You would see a Frenchman standing on the Metro with a bunch of roses, getting envious looks from the men around him who knew what he was up to."

Attitudes were very different across the Channel. "His British counterpart was more likely to bend the bunch in half, cover it in brown paper and tuck it under his jacket."

Not any more. Mr Felton is now a partner in an upmarket florist shop in Docklands and finds the men who come in much less coy. Whatever their sex, customers seem to know more about the blooms on display, they spend more and they are more demanding. "We are becoming more continental," he says.

Summer has always meant a profusion of flowers, in parks and gardens and at public events such as Ascot and Wimbledon. But our love for the petal is blooming, with the total annual value of flowers and indoor plants sold in British stores having doubled in a decade to around pounds 1.2bn.

This new-found power of the flower was demonstrated only last week at the memorial service for Linda McCartney. Her husband, Paul, arranged for an entire field of lilies from Amsterdam to decorate the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields - and it was seen as a fitting tribute rather than rock-star extravagance. Mourners left the church with fistfuls of the long-stemmed white trumpets.

The most enduring images of last year were provided by the flower mountains outside Kensington Palace and Buckingham Palace after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Such scenes are expected to be repeated when her final resting place at Althorp is opened to the public in a fortnight's time.

Celebrities apart, the rest of us are beginning to see flowers as an everyday, affordable luxury rather than only for special oc- casions. On average we spend pounds 23 per head every year, which is more than people in Spain, Russia and the USA. But it is nowhere near as much as the Swiss, who spend pounds 106, or the Norwegians and Danes at pounds 82 and pounds 68. According to the Flowers & Plants Association, which monitors the market, almost 60 per cent of flowers and plants are bought for personal consumption, including gifts, while 10 per cent are for corporate use, 8 per cent for funerals, and only 7 per cent for weddings.

Surprisingly, the two names that vie for the title of Britain's Biggest Florist are Marks & Spencer and Tesco, which sold 140 million stems last year. Tesco's horticulture sector was started a decade ago but has trebled over the last four years, as part of a general boom in supermarket flower sales. Along with its competitors, the chain has concentrated on providing simple bunches and bouquets at a price level and quality that remains stable - including the introduction of a guaranteed shelf life, with money back for those who find their blooms fading prematurely.

THE AIM is to persuade us to add a bunch of carnations or chrysanthemums to the shopping basket along with the spuds, rather than thinking of flowers as exclusively for special occasions. Most stores open on Sunday and some are 24 hours, so it is easy to pop in and buy a bunch on the way to see granny.

"Supermarkets have widened the audience for flowers, so that they're now part of your weekly shopping," says Jacky Stephen, buying manager for Tesco's flower department. "It is convenient. There is no snobbery. People don't have to say, `I've only got five pounds to spend'. They can select what they want in their own time."

She denies that the supermarkets are stealing custom from the high street, an opinion confirmed by Interflora, the non-profit association of florists, which says its 2,500 members experienced a 4 per cent rise in the number of stems sold last year. Instead the entry of the multiples into the market seems to be forcing small florists to concentrate on what they're best at: personal service, attention to detail and the ability to cater precisely for special occasions.

"We are selling a service that the supermarkets can't offer," says Mr Felton. His company, Felton, Wills & Segar, provides flowers to the Royal Family, and is the official florist at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster. "Does a supermarket really want to deal with drivers who are lost trying to find an address in the middle of the night, or talk to relatives who are preparing for a wedding or a funeral? We know that we are the fifth emergency service when a sweaty, desperate husband piles into the shop at lunchtime in the hope that a bouquet can be delivered to his wife that afternoon."

Flowers have also become an important tool for business. Mark Robinson, marketing director of JWT, the biggest advertising agency in the country, says his company's reception area is constantly filled with bunches waiting to be picked up by couriers. There are also arrangements in the meeting rooms and the office of each director. "We must spend a fortune on flowers."

He recently sent a bunch to Stephen Daldry, director of the Royal Court Theatre, to say thank you for a lecture he had given. "You don't get the leather wallet or the crate of beer any more, you get the flowers. It's easy. And I suppose we now live in a gesture society - and somehow a bunch of flowers is a far bigger gesture than anything else that costs the same."

For that reason the flowers sent between businesses tend to be bright, dramatic, spiky, colourful and elaborately presented. "There's nothing worse that getting an old-fashioned bunch of carnations, is there? But the big change over recent times is that men are now being sent them. The other day I saw someone I know who works in television production, a very butch fellow, carrying two bunches that had been delivered to him, and he was very pleased with them."

The only flower that Britain exports seriously is the chrysanthemum. Alan Frampton grows 10 million of them a year under cover at his farm in Chichester, West Sussex, using computer technology to regulate the temperature, humidity and hours of daylight. Young plants are sent to the Canary Islands to develop. The systems have evolved in response to the supermarket demand for more reliable quality, he says. "The layman is fed up with flowers that die when you get them home, so by improving the logistics of producing and selling flowers we are able to guarantee the product."

Florists, on the other hand, are diversifying. "The amount people are spending is going up and they want different things, more unusual and better quality flowers," says Dennis Edwards, who has traded at New Covent Garden, the country's largest flower market, for 10 years. As well as florists and designers, he supplies restaurants such as Mezzo and Quaglino's. It is the end of his week, but the stock available is still worth up to pounds 15,000. "The flowers we get now are better quality than they were 10 years ago, they're grown better, they're treated and they last longer."

MOST OF his stock comes from other parts of Europe, Africa and South America. When the boxes arrive he has two or three days to sell them on at their best; before the market moved to its purpose-built, air-conditioned premises, they had to be sold the same day.

High on a shelf are boxes of gerbera in bright colours. Yesterday they were selling for 40p a stem, today it is 25p. "There are a lot of weddings this weekend and white was in demand, so the price rose," says Mr Edwards. Each trader takes a walk around the glass-walled gallery above the market to see what else is available and how good it looks before setting a price. Only the most regular, favoured customers will be allowed to haggle.

The most expensive flowers available here are Casablanca lilies - which are very fashionable - at pounds 2 a stem. "This morning the growers wanted me to take them for pounds 31 a bunch - which is 10 stems - so I told them to send them where the sun don't shine."

Once you have become accustomed to the dazzling colours, the thousand shades of green and the intoxicating smell of the market, the most remarkable thing is how old-fashioned it all is. The trader's job is all about trust, reliability and the gift of the gab, just as it always was. The average customer buys three or four boxes of flowers, which they have to trim and package up themselves. It can take two or three hours to get round all the traders, negotiate orders, gather up the results and get on the road. But even then, nobody is allowed to take large orders out to their own van on a trolley - that job has to be done by the porters, who are paid by the market and take tips. So if you don't want to wait a long time for the flowers you have bought to be taken out to your vehicle, it pays to slip the porter a few quid.

Despite the huge volume of sales, receipts and invoices are still written out by hand in order books. "We haven't got time to be tapping away on a keyboard," says Mr Edwards. The florists, who are rapidly realising that their strength lies in tradition and the personal touch, are hardly likely to complain.