Retailers and growers can fill the demand for nutrient-rich berries, fruits and vegetables
A show of hands for those who think “superfood” when loading bananas in the supermarket shopping cart. No takers? No surprise.
Even though bananas are touted as a good source of fiber and potassium, folate, vitamin C and B6, and other antioxidants and phytonutrients, few people these days would necessarily call them a superfood.
Yet, that’s where the term derives from: a World War I-era marketing campaign by the United Fruit Campaign and a questionable study on Celiac disease. That “outstanding food” stamp of approval on bananas nevertheless stuck through the years. A century later, imported bananas make up an approximately $2 billion business in the United States alone.
The 2010s marked the rise in consumer appetite for items labeled superfoods. By 2015, there was 202% increase in the number of food and drink product launches labeled as a “superfood,” “superfruit” or “supergrain.”
We saw the rise of kale, avocado toast, the locavore movement — and Instagram. Celebrity chefs, celebrity health advisers and 24/7 access to online content, including a steady stream of news stories on studies of the healthiest diets, supported a surge of interest in newly minted superfoods.
In direct and indirect ways, the quest for superfoods — or nutrient-dense foods — has influenced which plants consumers want to buy at retail garden centers. Here we unpack how the growing awareness of superfoods presents opportunities for growers and retailers.
Adjusting to one-year crop trends
Sales of all edible plants have dramatically increased over the past 12 years, surging to sellout levels during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Customers do come looking for those highly nutritional, high-impact edibles such as kale, beets and berries,” said Dorothy Russo, chief of growing operations at Al’s Garden and Home, a garden retailer based in Woodburn, Oregon with four regional locations.
“Ten years ago, it used to be kale production was minimal; now it is almost as popular as lettuce,” she said. “We used to do one variety of kale, now we do 3–4.”
“You have to increase the quantity to meet the need, and sometimes that applies to the number of varieties, too,” said Laura Altvater, garden buyer for Portland Nursery, a retailer based in Portland, Oregon.
One thing is for sure these days: “You can never have enough kale,” she said.
That’s a 12-year trend in the making, attributed by some to the actress and Goop founder Gwyneth Paltrow, whose 2011 appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show showcased making kale chips. By 2012, Bon Appétit was naming it the “year of kale,” and by 2014, companies like Johnny’s Selected Seeds were noting a 20–30% jump in the sale of kale seeds, with the hybrid varieties completely selling out, as reported in the Washington Post.
A year later, on the heels of the kale craze, there was a rush on cauliflower in grocery stores and on plant racks when the paleo diet hit big. Prices rocketed to $7 per head.
The interest in paleo-centric foods, particularly fresh vegetables and fruits, is projected to ring in $10.3 billion in sales this year. That figure could grow to $16.6 billion by 2032, according to Future Market Insights in its market research reports.
With one-year crops such as beets, strawberries and kale, growers can easily get ahead of any surges in interest because the crops have a quicker turnaround time than woody plants, Russo noted. The focus on paleo diets provides a natural way for growers to merchandise such plants together in the store, tapping into interest.
Portland Nursery uses social media to focus attention on particular vegetable plants, and will use classes to do the same. These are great ways to promote the superfoods aspect of vegetable plants, perhaps with the support of nutritionists or naturopaths, Altvater said.
“Whenever we’ve had vegetable gardening classes, they are usually the most well-attended,” she said.
March of the berry
According to Vegetable Grower News, fruit sales declined during the pandemic in all but one category — berries. They are the “untouchables,” nearly double in sales of the runner up in the grocery line, apples.
Berry plants also top retail garden center shopping carts. When consumers became interested in superfoods, an interest in growing blueberry plants at home soon followed.
“We have seen that trend grow, plateau, dip and grow,” Russo said.
“A decade ago, we got blueberries in once in the spring, and that order would last a while,” Altvater said. “Now we get two or three large orders.”
David Brazelton is the founder and executive chairman of Fall Creek Farm and Nursery, a breeder and wholesale growing operation based in Lowell, Oregon.
“The growth and consumption of blueberries, the awareness of blueberries, and other berries, too, is really a global phenomenon,” he said. “There has been a steady increase of the understanding of the health benefits of blueberries by consumers. It has been more important than ever in their reasons to purchase blueberries. They have to taste good, but the health benefits are way up there.”
Global blueberry market sales are forecasted to reach $4.5 billion by 2024, with a compound annual growth rate of 6.7%, according to the USDA. Nursery growers have responded to the parallel demand by home gardeners eager to grow the superfoods rich in anthocyanins and antioxidants. They are steadily increasing production of blueberry varieties offered to the retail market, as well as strawberry and other berry plants.
“We carry more than just raspberries and strawberries,” Altvater said. “We carry seaberry, as well, but you need a lot of room for those — they can be 8–10-foot shrubs in a city lot. Honeyberries — those have picked up some, as well as goji berries.”
It helps that blueberries are “consumer friendly,” Brazelton said. They are relatively easy to grow with the right conditions, have no thorns, and serve double duty as a landscape plant. They are already a significant item in European commercial landscapes, and are increasing in prominence in U.S. commercial landscapes as well.
“I just drove through a Dutch Bros. [coffee kiosk] and noticed most of the landscape was done in blueberries,” Brazelton noted.
Blueberries offer a compact plant, all the way down to a foot high, with beautiful foliage, attractive spring blooms and fall color. They thrive in long growing seasons like in Oregon. They can start bearing in June and last through September. “Blueberries are suited for planters on your patio or close to an apartment; even on a small patio,” Brazelton said.
A shift is occurring in the commercial market because of the conditions blueberries like to thrive in — high pH and moist, but no wet feet. Commercial growers have taken to lifting blueberry plants out of soil and using substrate instead, whereas15 years ago, that was only done with smaller or dwarf plants. Even home gardeners can increase their success by growing them in substrates instead of soil.
“The key is to make sure it’s an acidic mix that does not have lime in it — mostly peat moss, perlite [or even coir],” Brazelton said. “And if you want it to last a long time, add course material, like bark chunks, one to three inches, mixed in about one-third content. The bark chunks help to keep the media from breaking down, and they work for drainage. If you tear into it five years later, it will be colonized by mycorrhizae and other beneficials, but the media doesn’t compact down.”
Homeowners could expect to then get 8–10 years enjoyment from a blueberry plant placed in that type of growing environment.
The same development of dwarf and container-friendly blueberries has taken off with raspberries. Brazelton and Fall Creek pushed this forward with development of the BrazelBerry® line, which includes blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries. Fall Creek then sold this line to Star Roses and Plants (West Grove, Pennsylvania), which rebranded it as Bushel & Berry.
“They are pretty neat and accessible — to have raspberries on your deck, 24–30-inch round and tall, loaded with raspberries,” he said.
The smaller sizes of blueberries especially offer an opportunity to market superfood edible plants lining driveways and making up dwarf hedgerows in commercial and home landscaping situations.
A 2017 article published by AARP trumpted, “Purple Fruits and Vegetables Are the Newest Superfoods.” That says it all. A glance through Pinterest confirms it, with hundreds of posts on purple vegetables and recipes to back it up.
Consumer awareness of purple food started with berries. As the health benefits derived from the purple pigment in the skin of dark berries were publicized, an interest in all purple vegetables ensued.
“We have always carried a wide variety of cauliflower, and the purple cauliflower sell faster than the white or yellow,” Altvater said.
Wholesale grower Log House Plants (Cottage Grove, Oregon) supplies a line of purple vegetables to Portland Nursery. The media often spurs the interest in the colorful veggies, as was the case after last year’s OPB report on Oregon State University Jim Myers’ introduction of Midnight Roma sauce tomato, prompting a surge of requests.
Elderberries are on the purple and berry list, and have seen an uptick in demand from consumers. Cultivated varieties have been hard to source but the native species are quick to propagate, even if the shrubs take a while to finish, according to Altvater.
“Since the pandemic, we haven’t been able to stock enough elderberries,” said Sam Hubert, nursery manager and horticulturist at One Green World, a retailer in Portland, Oregon. Although he expects demand might go away once the pandemic wanes. “This was a whole new level of interest in elderberries.”
Likewise, Aronia (chokeberries) has become more popular, according to Hubert. The plants don’t need acidic soils, have great fall color, and are native to North America. The berries are nutrient dense, with higher levels of antioxidants, polyphenols and anthocyanins than cranberries, blueberries, grapes, elderberries and other fruits. Consequently, awareness and interest have continued to rise.
Consumers will continue to see Aronia more frequently, as it is increasingly used in dietary supplements, foods, beverages and personal care products. The global market for the berries is expected to expand by at least 30% by 2025, from its value last year of $789.5 million.
Aronia falls into a class of berries that customers may have in the past eschewed because of their highly tart flavor that is less conducive to fresh eating. However, as consumers become more aware of the benefits, the profile and demand rises for Aronia and other tart edibles, such as goumi (Elaeagnus multiflora), seaberry (Hippophae rhamnoides) and the dark blue fruits of the Chilean barberry (Berberis microphylla).
“Like pie cherries, they wouldn’t be your favorite thing off the tree, but we’ve learned how to eat them,” Hubert said. They are complex and can be baked, juiced or made into a jam, smoothies, sauce or puree.
Trends in edibles
The selection of edibles at Al’s Garden and Home has changed and evolved with the knowledge of superfoods and the media push toward them.
“As an industry as a whole, we do a good job of looking at trends and getting ahead of them. I think our industry is good at reading the consumer and prepping,” Russo said. “Our head growers are trying to keep the pulse on what’s new and exciting and what consumers are saying is new and exciting. In that sense we direct consumers.”
Customers tend to trust their garden center choices. “If we say it is new and exciting, they’ll believe us,” Russo said. “Especially gardeners who haven’t tried something like dinosaur kale, they will
Hubert had the same Field of Dreams perspective: If you provide it, people will want it.
“For example, seaberry was barely known to the North American market before Jim Gilbert of Northwoods Nursery introduced it,” Hubert said “Now it’s a highly prized plant. All these nurseries have a big responsibility; we are providing the options that are out there, educating folks why they might want to grow them. We introduce things that are high in nutrients and give people those options to purchase.”
Hubert pointed out that with edibles, consumers might hesitate to buy something they’ve never tasted. Doing tastings can introduce them to what is sold in store.
“You can’t know it’s your favorite until you try it,” she said.
Garden centers can help customers find varieties to grow beyond those they might experience in the grocery store. Even at the farmers’ market, there may not be as much as selection because a variety may be too finicky for market growing. But for the home horticulturalist, without business aspirations, a plant may be productive enough. Examples include greengage plums (Prunus domestica) and Ashmead’s Kernel apple (Malus domestica ‘Ashmead’s Kernel’).
“Often, the only way to taste or grow them is to grow them yourself,” Hubert said.
There’s also a climate change angle, as people begin to understand and look to grow superfoods that better fit into their climates and need less water.
One Green World is always trying for greater diversity in the (drought-tolerant) figs it offers.
Additionally, Hubert is excited about bringing to the nursery’s catalog an early ripening pomegranate that is also drought tolerant, Punica granatum ‘Eight Ball’, which is so dark purple, the seeds and skin are nearly black. Like blueberries, pomegranates are high on the list of fruits with scientifically proven benefits, including anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. And although it doesn’t look like it, the pomegranate is botanically a berry.
The trends of the near future
“People have been far more eager to grow things that aren’t just for fresh eating; you are growing them to get your medicine,” Hubert said. “They are loaded in nutrients, they are medicinal and they sometimes taste like that.”
Looking ahead, Hubert sees Chilean wineberry (Aristotelia chilensis), or maqui (pronounced “mah-kee”), as upcoming plants. “We can’t grow enough of them,” she said.
The optics and the marketing language of maqui are built right in. From an edible and health perspective, the berries are rich in vitamin C as well as in anthocyanins, due to the deep, dark color. It has twice as much antioxidants as acai berry, already considered one the healthiest “new” berries to the hit the market. The leaves are edible when young, and can be used medicinally to treat wounds and burns. The Mapuche people of Chile have done so for thousands of years.
From a growing perspective, maqui are a shrub or small tree native to South America in the temperate Valdivian rain forests that is evergreen, fast growing and cold hardy to 10 degrees . It has abundant white flowers in spring, turning into an abundance of small dark blue, almost black, and berries in summer. Acai berry needs consistent 70 degree temperatures and only grows in the most tropical parts of the U.S. (Zones 10–11). Maqui, by contrast, survives in the cold.
There are other trends to look out for. One is the continued miniaturization of superfoods like baby kale and lettuce, container strawberries and darker, anthocyanin rich cherry tomatoes. Another is snacking vegetables as a substitute for fast food eating. Some of these need no further development. They already exist, and are ready to be marketed that way.
Those plants fit into a small-space gardening motif, promoting the idea of getting the most nutrition out of city plots.
Pointing out the great edible plants to grow and then how to grow them are the two parts of good promotion. The key is to help customers succeed in the garden by offering them support and information. Russo suggests starting with a planting schedule, website cheat sheets, classes, and other communication tools. All of these are part of building relationships with newly minted, pandemic era gardeners.
Edibles’ continued ascension
“Edibles in general have impacted the industry, almost as big as flowers,” Russo said, “especially with the cost of things going up.” When the cost of a pint of blueberries is $7, it has given home gardeners a reason to grow their own superfoods. Plus, there’s promoting the improved flavor and taste, which is the reward for all the hard work. “There is nothing better than homegrown edibles.”
Promoting growing of superfoods taps into the interest in knowing where food comes from, and the idea of gardening as a healthy activity. Little kids and families can do it, and it can be less expensive for high-end organic produce. All of these catchphrases contribute to the marketing of growing edibles.
And as extension of promoting these edibles, Russo points out that there is the added value of being able to promote how our industry, the nursery industry, is important to people’s well-being and health in a lot of ways.
“I think retailers and wholesalers can reach out to let our consumers know that,” she said.
Tracy Ilene Miller is a freelance writer and editor who covers several topics, including gardening. She can be reached