Behind the scenes at the Tropical Plant Company in Clayton-le-Moors

PUBLISHED: 00:00 26 April 2016

The Tropical Plant Company with Ben and Karen Baron

The Tropical Plant Company with Ben and Karen Baron

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A passion for exotic plants fired by travels in Latin America has turned into a business for a Lancashire couple, writes Roger Borrell

Ben BaronBen Baron

There are some people who might be a bit miffed if you described their garden as a jungle. But Karen and Ben Baron just chuckle and admit there have been times when neighbours have asked: ‘When do the monkeys arrive?’

Glance from the windows of their 1820s mill owner’s house and you could be forgiven for thinking they live in the tropics rather than Clayton-le-Moors.

The garden is a forest of exotic trees – palms, tree ferns, banana plants, yuccas, bamboo, olive trees, cannas and gingers. At 15 feet high, there are some specimens that seem to dwarf the house and one particular palm is referred to by Ben as ‘The Beast.’

The couple have set up The Tropical Plant Company in their garden and they are selling trees to eager collectors as far away as the south coast. The Royal Horticultural Society at Wisley has been in contact to purchase a rare variegated banana they have in stock.

‘I suppose the love of exotics started 16 years ago when we went travelling through Latin America and experienced trekking through the jungles of Costa Rica,’ said mum-of-two Karen. ‘We loved all the plant life there.

‘When we returned and got a place of our own in Great Harwood we started to create a tropical feel to our garden by buying palm trees and banana plants.

‘The garden had three palm trees and we loved them like family so when we moved to Clayton-le-Moors we dug them up and planted them here. We’ve proved you can create that tropical holiday feel at home in your own garden. People have commented it’s just like being away on holiday.’

Those of us who don’t know any better would assume palm trees would struggle in cold temperatures but they have thrived. ‘Palm trees can survive right down to -18 although some other species need fleece when the weather is particularly bad,’ said Karen, who is also a graphic designer.

Last year their hobby started to turn into a business. ‘We decided to buy and sell specimens and that went really well,’ said Ben. ‘We thought we would step it up this year and we went a bit crazy!’

Lorries arrived from Holland and Spain with no less than 200 plants – some in gigantic pots that can only be moved around on pallets with a forklift truck. ‘They looked a bit smaller in the pictures,’ laughed Ben, a software designer.

The big palms, which can be 60 or 70 years old, sell for up to £1,000. ‘As soon as they went online, they started to sell and a few days after they arrived 50 per cent of the big specimens were gone,’ added Ben.

Transporting them isn’t a simple operation but Ben is doing many of the deliveries himself and, with help, will manoeuvre them into place and dig the holes for clients.

They also sell many smaller plants, some only a few pounds and several species have been raised from seed in their polytunnel.

But it’s the big beasts that have stopped neighbours in their tracks. ‘I spotted a few people taking photographs as the plants arrived,’ said Ben. Karen added: ‘On the day the plants were due the kids asked me if the rainforest had arrived!’

Growing interest

In recent years, garden centres have reported growing interest in palms and more exotic species among gardeners in England.

According to the RHS, there are many varieties that can withstand our winters. For instance, the Mexican blue palm (brahea armata), an attractive, slow-growing fan palm is hardy to about -8°C in a well-drained, sheltered sunny spot.

The Jelly palm (butia capitata), with attractive arching green-blue leaves, can be grown outdoors in sheltered gardens where it may tolerate -10°C.

Palm trunks thicken with age making them more tolerant of lower temperatures although fleece or bubble wrap is recommended for really cold winters.

An added bonus is that palms cannot be pruned and dead lower leaves can simply be removed.

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