The Ghent azalea (Azalea indica), an indoor plant, is currently the only decorative product to be included in the list of streekproducten, or regional products, officially recognised by the Flemish government. Despite being originally an exotic import, it has a long history of association with the city.
Azaleas originate in the Far East, in China, Japan and Taiwan, and the plant was first brought to Flanders in 1774 by horticulturist Judocus Huytens. In Ghent he found the perfect conditions for growing them (there is also the outdoor Azalea japonica): acidic soil with good drainage. That was the beginning of the local speciality of growing decorative plants, leading to the establishment of the Agriculture and Botany Society in 1801, and later the Floraliën exhibition, which continues every five years to this day.
The azalea is in many ways the ideal indoor plant: It requires light, though not direct sunlight, needs nothing in the way of fertiliser and only the occasional watering. It’s available in a selection of colours, and plants are available pretty much the whole year round. It’s also energy-efficient: The cycle of cultivation takes 12 to 18 months, but growers only heat their greenhouses to avoid frost and to force the flowers at a late stage, so the plants only use energy for two or three weeks at most.
The Association of Flemish Azalea Growers was formed in 2001, and in 2010 the Ghent azalea received European name recognition. Only plants meeting the association’s quality standards and grown in East Flanders, are allowed to use the name.
That same recognition is now the goal of the Flemish laurel or bay tree (Laurus nobilis). Although the tree is native to the Mediterranean region – it once provided the laurel wreath to athletes in the games of Ancient Greece – its cultivation in Flanders goes back a long time, with the typical form now a speciality to the area around Bruges, Tielt and Roeselare in West Flanders, and around Eeklo and Ghent in East Flanders. Growers pay great attention to pruning the tree with the recognisable bay leaves to achieve a well-filled bush that can be trained into various forms.
Nine out of 10 trees grown here are exported, many of them to the UK. In 2009, growers Geert Devriese and Ingrid Luyssen from Wingene, West Flanders, planted a number of their trees – two new varieties they developed themselves – in the famous laurel garden of England’s Chichester High School for Boys.