Growing Australian native flowers commercially
Date: 22 Aug 2003 Author: Bettina Gollnow, Jonathan Lidbetter, Ross Worrall
The worldwide floriculture industry demands a diverse range of cut flower and foliage products, with the unusual and the exotic always attracting the attention of this fashion-driven industry. On the world market, Australia’s export potential lies in its unique native flora, a rich resource of valuable new flower products waiting to be fully developed and marketed to the world. Domestic consumers are also increasingly seeking out native flowers.
Many native flowers and foliages now being grown commercially were initially mostly bush-picked to first establish market acceptance. Today in NSW most are grown in beds or rows in commercial plantations along the coastal strip where there are suitable growing conditions and good transport links to major domestic and export markets.
Up to 95% of Australian flower exports are Australian native flowers and protea flowers. Worldwide production of Australian native species is worth an estimated A$400 million per year, with Australia’s share currently standing at A$50 million. This means that growers located overseas (especially in California, Africa, Israel and South America) are growing significantly greater volumes of Australian native flowers than we are growing in Australia, and the research and development input into these species overseas is greater than local investment.
What makes a flower suitable for commercial growing?
Most traditional flower crops grown commercially today are the result of many years of intensive selection and breeding. For example, carnations have been grown for over 2000 years and have been improved by breeders since the 16th century, making the carnations that a florist uses today very different from the original wild parents. This means that a wide range of flower colours and forms is available to cater for the fashion trend of the moment. Also, a great deal is known about the cultivation needs of these crops — growers can adapt this information to suit their situation and market needs.
In sharp contrast, relatively few Australian native plants have been the focus of rigorous improvement programs (we have an estimated 30 000 native species), and any selection programs have commenced only recently. Ironically, this provides Australia with a competitive advantage. Many Australian natives are basically still ‘wild’ plants, grown from seed — their cultivation requirements in different parts of the country are largely unknown. Some species, for example kangaroo paw and wax flower, have already become ‘world crops’ and offer the market a great diversity of form and colour.
Another perceived difference between Australian native and traditional cut-flower crops is the length of the flowering season. Under outdoor conditions in much of NSW, many crops like roses and carnations produce flowers throughout most of the year. Other crops like chrysanthemums have a short flowering season, but commercial growers can produce flowers for most of the year by choosing early and late flowering varieties and by artificially controlling the daylength under which they are grown.
Australian native species mostly flower in spring and have a relatively short flowering season. Little is known about what triggers flowering in these plants, making the manipulation of crops, so that they flower on demand, a long way off. Undoubtedly there are benefits of applying production technology, developed for traditional crops, to native flower growing.
So, what makes a native plant suitable as a commercial cut flower?
- The blooms must be decorative and potentially be available in a range of colours and shapes.
- The stems need to be strong and in proportion to the bloom in terms of length and diameter.
- The flower must have a suitable vase life after harvest to give the end customer value for money. A vase life of 7 days or more is preferred. It may be possible to extend vase life by using preservative solutions or other postharvest techniques. The postharvest characteristics of many native species are still poorly defined. Flowering stems that have a tendency to drop flower parts, or have petals that shrivel quickly, are not suitable for floristry, nor are plants with prickly foliage or offensive odours.
- A species must be suited to cultivation; that is, it should be easy to propagate in large numbers and show vigorous growth in both nurseries and commercial plantations. This is necessary so that a large volume of the same product can be offered to the market.
- A suitable species will have a long flowering season, or have several cultivars available which have different but slightly overlapping flowering seasons.
- Prolific flowering early in the life of the crop is also desirable; otherwise, growers need to be prepared for significant inputs of labour and money to care for the plants over a number of years before any marketable product is produced.
Most commercial flower crops are grown in beds, with a large number of individuals of the same type massed together. This means that pests and diseases can become a problem and result in severe crop losses if not managed. Also, customers demand a product free of blemishes, pests and diseases. This means that the growing crop must be managed constantly to ensure pests and diseases are kept to a minimum.
While many traditional flowers have been bred for their tolerance of pests and diseases, native species are at a very early stage of improvement, and for many, pest and disease tolerance is undefined. Many native species are susceptible to severe root and stem diseases caused by the fungus Phytophthora and other related fungi. Knowledge of the susceptibility of native flower crops to various pests and diseases, and of the management of these pests and diseases, is still at an early stage.
Last, but most important, the economics of commercially growing native flowers need to be considered. The economics are related to a range of factors, including:
- number of blooms produced per unit area per year;
- cost of production — the cost of setting up the flower farm infrastructure and the ongoing costs of fertilisers, irrigation, pest and disease management, weed control, pruning, picking, grading, and postharvest handling and transport;
- net price received per bloom or per bunch.
Australian natives in the cut flower industry
To date, a small but steadily growing number of Australian natives satisfy all the criteria that make a species a good candidate for commercial flower farming. Those listed below are being grown commercially and may be suitable for testing by new growers. For most, there is limited published information on their cultivation as a plantation crop, and even less on the economics of growing them. Plants may need to be sourced from specialist plant nurseries or seed suppliers, and often ordered well in advance to ensure that the number of plants required are available at the appropriate planting time.
While accurate industry statistics are not available, the native and protea flower industry, also known as the wildflower industry, is believed to have a domestic market share of 10%–15%, while exports are currently valued at A$50 million. Unlike the traditional flower industry, which has all the features of a mature industry, the native/protea industry still has the characteristics of a developing industry, as it has a high percentage of new, inexperienced growers. However, it is a more export-focused industry, and it obtains its information from a wide range of sources.
To date, growers have tended to work cooperatively, and a number of active grower networks and associations have been formed in NSW. Unfortunately, the industry is still very fragmented, with a large number of small businesses involved and a multiplicity of marketing channels; it also lacks accurate industry statistics and forecasts. Many growers are part-time flower growers who have other business or farming interests. To date, the industry has not invested adequate funds in research, development or promotion.
The NSW native flower industry
The east coast of Australia has an extremely rich flora, but ironically many of the initial commercial plantings of native flowers in NSW were based on species sourced from Western Australia. This was due to:
- a history of exports of bush-picked material from the west;
- the belief that many of the most appealing east coast species were too hard to propagate or cultivate;
- perhaps a failure to appreciate the local flora.
The past 10 years have seen a rapid expansion of the native flower industry, with the entry of large numbers of new growers. Most of the industry is now located along the coast, with a strong focus on the Mid North Coast and North Coast regions, where crops come into production at a key time to satisfy the prime market opportunities in Japan. This expansion has occurred for several reasons, including:
- a greater local demand for quality, cultivated, native flora;
- stronger targeting of key crops;
- greater availability of basic production information;
- development of crop-based and locally based grower networks;
- wholesalers and exporters fostering grower development through better feedback and crop recommendations;
- stronger collaboration between the research and development institutions and industry;
- increased pressure to reduce bush-picking;
- restructuring or downturns in other agricultural industries.
Species in commercial production in NSW
In step with the expansion of the industry in NSW, there has been an increased investment in species that occur naturally in this state, for example:
- NSW Christmas bush
- flannel flower
as more local selections have become available and more is learnt about their cultivation. Waratahs and Christmas bush in particular have seen a resurgence in interest and have been planted extensively in the last 5 years.
Plantations established within the natural range of these species have generally experienced fewer problems than those planted further afield.
- New crops - reinvented
- New crops now well accepted
- 'Potential' or very new crops
- Western Australian species
Other sources of information on specific crops include the following websites:
- Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation
- Department of Agriculture, Western Australia
- Department of Primary Industries, Victoria
Growers and marketers of Australian native species need to be aware of their obligations under the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) Management Plan 2002–05: ‘Protected and threatened plants in the cut flower industry’. The NSW NPWS administers legislation that restricts the commercial use of protected and threatened species in the interests of protecting species diversity and ecological sustainability. This plan describes management procedures aimed at ensuring sustainable harvest of native species used commercially in floristry. The plan includes details of licensing regimes affecting growers of cultivated product and bush harvesters. Compliance with this plan is required by Environment Australia (Canberra) before permits to export native flower products are granted.
For more information see the following websites:
- A number of industry associations serve the native flower industry in NSW. Please refer to the publication Commercial flower growing in NSW - an industry snapshot for contact details.
- The industry and NSW DPI have developed a logo (shown at right) to be used on stickers and flower sleeves to promote cultivated Australian native flowers. This logo aims to encourage higher industry standards and increased florist and consumer confidence in the use of native flowers, in addition to raising funds for research, development and promotion of native flowers. The scheme is being administered on behalf of the industry by Australian Native Flower Growers and Promoters.
- NSW DPI hosts an annual meeting of NSW commercial growers of wildflowers (Australian natives and South African proteaceae).
The information provided in this document is adapted from an earlier publication, Agfact H9.1.2 Native plants as cut flowers, by GP Lamont.