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Norfolk Exotics brings a piece of sunny south home

Agave, pineapple, Elephants Ear – one may confuse Norfolk Exotics for a great place to stop for a bite to eat.

James Rollo and his son Jack stand next to Christmas Palms. Rollo has been operating Norfolk Exotics since 2018, and the idea of bringing exotic plants to Norfolk County backyards is growing in popularity. — Contributed photo

James Rollo has always loved the beach. Every opportunity he and his wife Alycia have, they vacation somewhere hot, somewhere tropical. A few years ago, to bring the beach to the family home, James purchased an exotic plant for his backyard. This purchase had him question the idea of whether or not a market existed for exotic plants right here in Norfolk County.

After finding a local supplier who guaranteed James wholesale pricing if he could sell 10 trees, James took orders for over 100 in just one day. This was a pretty good indication a market existed.

“It was hard to know if it would take off from there but it has,” James said. “I like to work on websites so that’s what I’ve concentrated on over the past few years.”

Although the business started in 2018 out of James’ home, last season he knew he needed more space so he approached Eising Greenhouses and Garden Centre. It’s been a good partnership for both businesses as customers can see what they are ordering from James’ website, and while they are there they can shop all that the greenhouse has to offer as well.

This season over 35 species of exotic plants were brought to Norfolk County from Southern Florida and sold out. Deliveries typically begin around May 24, and the season concludes around the middle of July. While COVID-19 slowed many operations this spring and summer James said surprisingly the only one hiccup was getting the exotics over the border.

Regardless, everything was on time to help bring a bit of paradise to Canadian backyards.

James feels that the pandemic may have contributed to interest this season as Canadians realized they wouldn’t be able to head south or travel in general. While James has a roster of local customers, many are from the Toronto area and this year he shipped into British Columbia and Prince Edward Island.

“People weren’t travelling this year so I think they spent a little more money, and the money they would normally spend travelling, to make their backyard more enjoyable and nicer than ever,” he said. “Everyone loves being near tropical plants. Obviously it’s not normal for us here in Canada to be around them, but we do love how they look because they can turn your home into a real oasis.”

Aesthetics isn’t the only draw as James is quick to point out that his best seller is the edible pineapple plant. There’s nothing like a refreshing piece of fresh pineapple on a hot day -- sales of over 200 pineapple plants by the end of March prove it.

While pineapple is the best seller, when asked which plant is his favourite, James says it is hands down the Bottle Palm.

“It just has a really cool look to it and it’s definitely not something you see very often,” he explained. “They are really big around eight to ten feet tall and look really tropical.”

Online, consumers have a choice of plants in all sizes, with some palms reaching over 30 feet tall. Size doesn’t always indicate price on exotics either as James says he’s amazed at how many people are spending upwards of $700 on a two-foot plant.

The big question when considering the purchase of an exotic is where does it go once our cooler climate sets in? Most exotic species must be kept in temperatures above five or six degrees Celsius.

“Most people bring their plants indoors for the winter or into a heated shop,” James explained. “The ones you can’t bring in, owners build boxes around the plant to protect it because there are only a few varieties that can actually survive a Canadian winter.”

As the long dark days of winter set in, James will keep things bright by working on his website and preparing for next season when he hopes to be shipping right across Canada. While Norfolk Exotics began as a hobby business, James can see it is quickly growing into a full-time job.

“I enjoy my full-time career as a power engineer at Imperial Oil but it will mean some full-time work for some other people,” he said. “I know we can do this year round.”

So when the Canadian winter keeps you indoors, and as you grow tired of snow and cold, head over to and plan for sunnier, hotter days. 

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