Bananas and palm trees are not what most people associate with Switzerland, but a husband and wife team, Dominica and Urs Blatter, are showing that they can be successfully grown and marketed in the southeast region of Ticino.
Founded in 1997, Palmetto, the Blatters' garden centre business, specialises in banana and palm trees, while also selling a range of Mediterranean plants.
The 4,000-square metre plot just outside the small town of San Antonio, near Locarno, produces 200 to 300 banana plants, as well as 100 to 200 palm trees per year. A banana plant at Palmetto costs from 10 francs to 200 francs ($6-116), with palm trees costing from five francs to a few thousand francs.
While the bananas trees flourish in sunny Ticino, it's unlikely that they will bear a crop of bananas in northern Switzerland, because of the colder climate.
"The bananas won't grow, just the plant itself, because the warm period is too short to have bananas with the cold season coming too early," said Dominica. "But if we had another winter as mild as last winter then they would also have bananas in the north of the country."
Resisting the cold
With 60 per cent of their customers coming from the colder Swiss German part of the country Dominica Blatter explained that the banana plants they produce in the Swiss Italian canton are cold resistant, and that the palm trees will also grow north of the Alps.
"We are in love with these kinds of plants and we would like the northern part of Switzerland to have more of these plants in their gardens," added Dominica.
Palm trees from northern India were first introduced to the region about 150 years ago. They have adapted well to the region's climate and now grow wild throughout Ticino.
Before moving to Ticino, Urs Blatter had worked as a landscape gardener while Dominica had mainly worked in office jobs.
Dominica Blatter told swissinfo that running their own business had been a dream they shared and that they had chosen Ticino because of its warmer climate.
"Here you can run a business without heated hot houses for the plants as you can leave the plants outside or just in small unheated houses," explained Dominica. Otherwise, heating costs drive up the prices, making the plants "very expensive", she said.
The Blatters divide the work, with Dominica concentrating on sales and customer relations, while Urs deals with private landscaping clients.
Palms on the net
The business has taken advantage of marketing opportunities afforded by the Internet, however it is only in the last year that this has started to pay off.
"In the beginning when we started with the Internet in 1997 there was no response, but this year there has been a lot of response due to our homepage," added Dominica.
The customers wandering through the sun-drenched gardens at Palmetto are a mixed bunch, according to Dominica Blatter, with people from all walks of life finding a passion for Mediterranean plants.
Turning their passion for palm trees and banana plants into a business has been something of a labour love for the Blatters, who hope that commercial success is just around the corner.
"Every year is better but five years is too short a period to say you're successful," said Dominica. "Nowadays you need to give it 10 years as before that you are not making a lot of money."
by Tom O'Brien