Photo: Laura Watilo Blake

Following major rainfall and snowpack in California throughout the fall and winter, Gov. Jerry Brown lifted the drought emergency for most of the state. Greenhouse and nursery growers might have to meet a growing consumer demand for more tropical and less water-wise plants, despite the fact that recurring droughts are likely. However, other customers are approaching their purchases with the environmentally inspired caution the state government has instilled in them. That caution has also resulted in water usage fees and groundwater regulations for growers.

So far in 2017, flooding has taken a toll on parts of the state. In Northern California, early February rains flooded and damaged the Oroville Dam, which led to the evacuation of residents of several counties. Meanwhile, the State Water Resources Control Board has praised California residents statewide for taking water conservation efforts seriously. Calling attention to the flooding, the Board recently cited climate change as the culprit behind the state’s weather extremes.

The weather and loosening of water restrictions have impacted the buying trends of plant customers, according to the California Association of Nurseries and Garden Centers (CANGC). “The mandatory watering restrictions implemented during the drought created uncertainty among consumers and required educating the public on how they could conserve water and have a beautiful landscape,” the association says. “The wet winter and now spring have renewed many consumers’ hopes for a lush garden.”

Citing consumer trends concerning water-wise plants reported by a regional retailer, CANGC says succulents are still trending, and “drought-tolerant” is a top keyword online. At the same time, Azalea and Rhododendron sales are down from normal. While the retailer expects an increase in sales of non-water-wise varieties, water-wise plants are likely to retain mass appeal with customers.

A shifting dynamic

For October 2016 and January and February 2017, most of California saw more than 150 percent of the average precipitation for those months year-by-year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). And although observed precipitation levels for March were mostly below average, the averages for the water year (October through September) stayed above normal through March.

McLellan Botanicals/Taisuco America in Aromas, Calif., has seen an increase in demand for both its orchids, which it grows under cover, and its eucalyptus, which it grows outside, says head grower Jose Carrera. He attributes the increase in demand, at least in part, to the rain, which has fallen since November but was its heaviest in January and February.

The rain has also affected production, stunting the growth of the eucalypti, Carrera says. “Instead of growing, they got stunted, because they got so much water at one time, after all these years of the drought,” he says.

About 400 miles south of Aromas, in Oceanside, San Diego County, Sal Gonzalez, sales manager at DM Color Express Nursery, recalls one particular late winter storm when an inch of rain fell in about two and a half hours. “It’s not normal to get an inch of rain in that period of time in this area,” he says.

But the rain hasn’t had much of a direct impact on production at DM Color Express, which has primary outside growing grounds in Oceanside, and additional pick-up locations in San Juan, Orange, Del Mar and Vista, Gonzalez says. “Really, the rain doesn’t affect our growing a whole lot,” he says. “The reason that doesn’t affect us is because regardless of it rains a lot or it doesn’t, we supplement our feeding to our plant material. What does it do to us as an industry as a whole? A lot.”

If end consumers believe there is sufficient rain for them to effectively purchase and maintain plants, they will purchase more product through the contractors that DM Color Express supplies, Gonzalez says. If drought conditions stay away and demand for tropical plants increases, the nursery will shift some of its focus from drought-tolerant plants to meet that demand. If drought conditions return, but consumer demand for tropical plants increases anyway, the nursery will still have to meet the demand.

Industry response to the drought and regulations

The four years between October 2011 and September 2015 marked California’s driest four-year period on record, and the southern Central Valley and South Coast were the driest they have been in almost 450 years, according to NOAA.

Throughout California’s drought, DM Color Express dedicated itself to growing water-wise and drought-tolerant plants, which was mainly in line with what customers were purchasing, Gonzalez says. Customers could more easily take care of cacti and succulents than tropicals because of the various water restrictions the state had imposed on them. The state didn’t limit the amount of water growers could use, but it did begin to charge them more if they used more water, Gonzalez says.

Regulations toward curbing groundwater pollution have also increased, Carrera says. “We’re having to do a lot more paperwork, we’re getting a lot more inspections and they’re requiring that we do a lot more than we did before to make sure that the groundwater doesn’t get polluted,” he says.

About three years ago, McLellan Botanicals/Taisuco America switched the growing media for its greenhouse orchid operation from fir bark to sphagnum moss, Carrera says. “Before, we were using a lot more water,” he says. “With sphagnum moss, it’s a different situation.” The decision to switch growing media was in part because of the drought, but also because the grower’s parent company, Taiwan Sugar Corporation, had already made the switch, Carrera says.

The grower’s eucalypti outside grew well, only requiring two or three waterings a year, Carrera says. Looking ahead to the rest of 2017, he hopes the rain slows down so it doesn’t affect eucalyptus sales.

An unclear future

NOAA researchers anticipate megadroughts could wreak havoc on the state. Gov. Brown has conveyed a similar warning. "This drought emergency is over, but the next drought could be around the corner," he said in a statement. "Conservation must remain a way of life.”

As long as regular rains continue to fall in Northern California, the government will be able to pull water from reservoirs to sustain populations farther south, Gonzalez says.

As future weather patterns remain to be seen, so do their effect on the market, Gonzalez says. “I wish I had a crystal ball and I could say, ‘Ok, they’re going to go back to what they did [before the drought],’ because if you’re older like me, you remember the last drought event that we had, when people went back from the drought-tolerant to the tropicals right away,” he says. “But this time, I don’t know what’s going to happen because there’s a lot of advertising saying otherwise, that the drought will stay. So, if it stays, then we’re going to stay with what we were doing last year.”

DM Color Express is still growing many drought-tolerant plants, but has increased its flower growing out of speculation that the rainfall might continue, Gonzalez says. He hopes he is right so the plants can go to market. “If it keeps raining, industry and agriculture will keep going as well, as it is now,” Gonzalez says. “But if it doesn’t, then we can be in trouble. I mean, because all of a sudden, things are going to change. We’re going to become Phoenix, Arizona, and not Southern California.”