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Commercial Production of Australian Wildflowers

Peter Beal


There are an estimated 20,000 or more species of Australian flora. Its value as a major national resource is further substantiated by its increasing national and international commercial use. The range of commodities produced by indigenous species in extensive. It includes cut flowers and foliage, potted plants, plants for landscaping and regeneration projects, foods, medicinal products and essential oils, wood and fibre products. Animal industries benefit with shelter, pasture and forage for livestock and nectar for honey production. Our flora is a major drawcard for tourists.

In this article the use of Australian native species for the commercial production of cut flowers and foliage will be discussed, with some reference to potted plants and bedding plants. Before going into these industries in more details, it is useful to revisit some case histories of the development of other Australian flora.

Selected Histories of Australian Industries Utilising Australian Flora

Macadamia Nut Production

The macadamia nut was the first food product derived from Australian flora to become commercialised overseas . The Australian industry now has 6 million trees and produces 25,000 tonnes of nuts in shell. The industry is currently worth $60M at the farm gate, of equivalent value to the once dominant Hawaiian industry. The Australian industry has developed rapidly in the last 20 years initially using Hawaiian research results (Ainsbury - McConachie, 1996[97]).

The successful development of the industry is associated with the existence of a supportive industry organisation, the provision of levy based industry funds for research and development (R & D) (now $0.5M a year), the development of agronomic practices and harvest and post-harvest protocols involving Quality Assurance systems ensuring a quality product, and more recently, the use of local varieties in most new plantings.

Eucalyptus Oil Production

The production of oil from Eucalyptus leaf for medicinal, industrial and perfume use was once exclusive to Australia with a peak in production of 1000 tonnes in 1947 (Colton, 1995[3]). Australian production has declined since the 1950s to now be 100 tonnes/year (worth $0.75M), compared to world production of 3000 tonnes (Davis, 1995[3]). This oil is now produced predominantly by low cost countries, for example as a by-product of the timber industry in China. Australia is retaining its position (albeit small) by producing high quality oil for a premium price (e.g.medicinal oil - cineole 80-90% from E.polybractea) using efficient growing practices and mechanisation.

Tea Tree Oil Production

Originating in the 1930s, Australia produced 130 tonnes of oil worth $7M in 1994 and presently has a world monopoly of oil production with good prospects for expansion (Davis, 1995(3). Some 2000 ha plantations of Melaleuca alternifolia have been established, mostly in NSW. Bush production of 40 tonnes/year is at its maximum potential. The industry produces oil containing terpinen-4-ol, which is in great demand because of its anti-microbial characteristics and as it can penetrate the skin. The industry owes its success to development of improved varieties, efficient mechanical harvesting and technological advantage over potential competitors, who don't yet possess the germplasm, growing protocols etc.

World Floriculture Markets

The world market in cut flower and foliage had a value of $37,000M in 1995/96. Australian flower production had an estimated value of $270M (or a share of <1%) of which $30M was exported (with 93% of exports being native wildflowers and exotic Proteaceae). The world market in dried and processed flowers and foliage had a value of $350M with the Australian share estimated at $8M most of which was exported. The world market in potted and bedding plants was equally large with a value of $31,000M, The Australian share was $466M (a share of 1.5%) of which only $7.5M was exported.

" The largest exporter has been the Netherlands with 59% of world cut flowers .......with Colombia next with 10% of world cut flower production"

Major production centres are Europe, Japan and the US with Colombia and Israel also well established areas. Flower production is tending to locate where out of season and or low cost factors exist such as southern Africa and South America (Karingal Cons., 1994).

The largest exporter has been the Netherlands with 59% of world cut flowers (and 48% world potted plants) with Colombia next with 10% of world cut flower production. The largest consumers are US, Germany and Japan. (Butt, 1994(1). About 70% of world cut flower trade is in the African/European zone, 20% in the US and South American region with the remaining 10% in the Australian/Pacific - SE Asian zone. (Wetzler,1996)

Australian Wildflower Production

Australian wildflower production is underpinned by the world-wide demand for unique floricultural commodities and for cultivation rather than wild harvesting. The export sector is rapidly developing, however this expansion needs to be tempered by the concern for conservation of Australian flora and an avoidance of the mistakes made by similar industries in the past. Research and development is an essential part of securing the industry's future.

Current Australian native flower production in Australia has a value of $85M. Around 85% of flowers for the domestic market are traditional flowers grown in intensive cultivation primarily in Victoria, NSW and Queensland. In contrast, 93% of export flowers are native flowers and exotic Proteaceae. The exports include fresh flowers and foliage ($21M) and dried and preserved product ($7M) sourced from both intensive cultivation and bush picking. Nursery plants exports currently valued at approximately $7 million per year have been steadily increasing.

Characteristics of the Wildflower Industry

The industry has been generally characterised by high labour costs, distant export markets, many small relatively inexperienced growers, a lack of well established growers, a past reliance on wild harvest and growers, primarily favouring domestic markets (Batt, 1994[1]). More recently there has been recognition of the need to focus on the advantage of our diverse species and unique products, out of season supply (producing a strategic advantage to the southern hemisphere), being market responsive, developing appropriate growing and handling technology and maintaining high quality. Queensland has a substantial freight advantage for export (1:2) over Western Australia as a mid season producer (Karingal Cons., 1994)

Wild Harvesting

Wild harvest of wildflowers and native foliage in Queensland extends back to the 1930s with Byfield Fern. Western Australia currently produces about 50-60% of Australia's wildflowers for export and most of Australia's wild harvest commodity. The main source of native wildflowers and foliage in Western Australia used to be from bush harvested and bush managed stands on public or private lands. Uncontrolled access to native flora is no longer possible.

Only around 15% of Western Australia wildflower production was from wild harvest in 1995/96 compared to about 50% in 1985. The future of the industry lies in cultivated flora and attaining the quality demanded on export markets. This shift from wild harvest to cultivation of wildflowers in Western Australia was influenced by conservation concerns, habitat destruction and better product quality from cultivated production.

" Only around 15% of Western Australia wildflower production was from wild harvest in 1995/96 compared to about 50% in 1985."

Many species were believed in jeopardy from unsustainable harvest (e.g. Banksia coccinea, (Western Australia, and Blandfordia grandiflora, NSW), development and disease. Legislation has been put in place in most states which lists protected (including rare and endangered) species and provides different levels of protection. There may be effective curtailment of wild harvesting on crown land and also of some species on private land. There is provision in some states for the management of trade in listed wildflower species (e.g. by the Dept.of Conservation and Land Management [CALM] in Western Australia and the Dept of Primary Industries [DPI] Forestry in Queensland) and persons and sources are licensed. In addition, the Australian Nature Conservation Agency (ANCA) issues export permits and monitors exports based on exporter returns.

Banksia coccinea
The spectacular flower spikes of the scarlet banksia, Banksia coccinea, are prized as cut flowers. Select the thumbnail image or plant name for a higher resolution image - 30k (Photo: Brian Walters).

A large range of species (circa 300 species) is bush harvested in Western Australia. The dominant species harvested changes each year. The main species presently bush harvested in Queensland are Byfield Fern, Koala Fern, Emu Feathers, Umbrella Fern, Steel Grass and Geebung.

Australian Floricultural Exports

Australian flower and foliage exports have risen over 80% over the last 10 years to $30M, albeit from a small base. Major markets have been Japan (48%) North America (21%) and Europe (20%). The main production states have been Western Australia, Victoria and NSW (FECA, 1996).

Wildflower production for export was in the order of 70% fresh flowers, 25% dried flowers and 5% foliage. Forecasts of a total Australian floricultural export turnover (predominantly native) of $75M by 2000 have been made by the Japanese Cut flower Importers Association. The estimates were conditional on quality standards being met at the point of auction in Japan (Karingal Cons., 1994)

The main flower exports in 1995/96 are shown in the following table.

1. Waxflower
2. Kangaroo Paw
3. Thryptomene
4. Stirlingia
5. Protea
6. Banksia
7. Leucadendron
8. Koala Fern
9. Scholtzia
10. Eucalyptus

(FECA, 1996)

Flower Export Council of Australia

The flower export Council of Australia (FECA) has a membership of 70% of Australia's flower exporters. It has played a major part in recent expansion of the Australian floriculture export sector. FECA has imposed a levy system on its members and has supported research and development, marketing and promotion and export standards and quality assurance (QA) schemes for selected crops. FECA supports exports by creating an awareness of the critical phases in production, post-harvest handling, export, and import distribution. The future of the Australian wildflower industry lies in attaining the quality demanded on export markets, using cultivated flora.

Japanese Market for Australian Wildflower Exports

The Japanese market will be described in detail because of its importance to Australian wildflower exporters. The Japanese market is not unlimited and quality is the key. Around 95% of all flower and foliage are sold at auctions. Flowers need to have 7 days vase life after arrival, and fragrance is becoming more important (Kaishita,1996[4]). New varieties of wild flowers need promotion. Consignments must be free of pests and diseases and accompanied by phytosanitary certificate. Quality standards must be adhered to and to cool storage maintained from farm through to consumer.

Desirable colours were originally pastel colours (e.g. light pink) but now more intense colours (e.g. yellow, bright pink and red) are desirable. Colour preferences vary by season, by region and by specific flower type. Flower usage in Japan (1994) was divided fairly equally between gifts (29%), home (26%) and business (24%).

While Australian wildflowers are unique there is a trend to an over supply situation from mid September to mid October.

Imports (millions of stems) from Australia to Japan over 1992-1994 of all varieties of cut flowers and foliage and average price/stem are tabled below (Yoneda pers. comm.)

Yen per


There is a clear trend to reduced price per stem over time as large quantities of 'fillers' enter the market. This is in contrast with feature flowers in the Proteaceae such as Banksia, when average prices of $2-3/stem have been maintained over the same period. It underlines the opportunity for producers to focus on growing high quality, high value feature flowers, which tend to hold their price at market.

Other Producers of Australian Wildflowers

Australian Wildflowers Grown in Israel

There are lessons for Australia in Israel's success in utilising Australian wildflowers in developing their own cut flower industry. In 1992/93 the Israeli cut flower industry produced 700 million stems (worth US $200 Million?) of predominantly traditional flowers but also including species of Australian origin.

Annual exports of kangaroo paw now are 16 million stems. The continued importance of Australian species as components of the Israeli industry is best demonstrated with waxflower from Israel have increased six fold between 1984 and 1994 from 10 to 60 million stems. Waxflower comprised 8% of Israel's cut flower crop in 1994 (Shillo, pers. comm.).

The primary market for Israeli waxflower is Europe. The production season is presently October to May. The varieties used are both Australian and Israeli origin.

Chamelaucium uncinatum
Geraldton wax, Chamelaucium uncinatum, is a widely grown cut flower crop with several colour variations. Select the thumbnail image or plant name for a higher resolution image - 37k (Photo: Brian Walters).

The Israeli cut flower industry is large and grounded in export. It is characterised by coordinated and well focused research programs and a policy of identifying new crops for development which are unique and very marketable. The Israelis are now starting to look beyond their traditional European markets which have become oversupplied, targeting Asian markets and competing directly with Australian product.

Other Producers

Other Producers include New Zealand (boronias and waratah), USA and Mexico (a wide range of natives) and South America (waxflower, kangaroo paw and banksias). Colombia produces large quantities for the US market and has accepted prices as low as 17c/stem for kangaroo paw and 3-5c/stem for traditionals [McGeoch, 1994(1)].

Research and Development


The Australian wildflower industry is gaining increasing support from the formation of many new regional or commodity groups. There are now 12 groups in Queensland with regional affiliations from Mareeba to Esk to Jandowae with a 'Stenanthemum Growers Group' organised from Maleny. Similar developments have occurred in other states, e.g. a 'Waratah Information Network' and a 'Blandfordia Growers Group' formed in NSW. The coordination of these groups within the state and under a peak national body (e.g. Flower Industry Association of Australia - FIAA) is desirable, particularly if the industry is to generate its own research and development funds and continue to develop its potential.

The Australian Flora Foundation (AFF) has, since formation in 1981, supported several small projects/year with modest funds of $2,000-$5,000/project. AFF has had a major strategic role in facilitating preliminary research, commonly a forerunner of larger projects. The Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) has provided major support in recent years (i.e. $805,000 for 26 wildflower research projects in 1995/1996) with an emphasis on greater industry involvement and research being market driven. There is a substantial multiplier effect from the funds when additional contributions from industry and public sector research is considered. Unfortunately, available RIRDC wildflower research funding has reduced to $150,000 for new projects in 1997/98 and this is a major constraint to continued industry development.

The rapid recent development of the commercial wildflower industry in Australia has been associated with substantial research and development support. RIRDC has been providing funding support to high priority areas including market development, post-harvest and quality Assurance, preservation of flower and foliage, new crops development and plant improvement and production efficiency for existing crops. Education is part of the role with the provision of improved information on new and existing crops and enhanced skills for new and existing growers a priority.

The development of a wildflower species as a cultivated crop involves the conjoint identification of suitable germplasm, the development of growing, harvesting and post-harvest handling protocols and quantity standards and the matching of production to market demand. In addition, for successful development of an export crop a critical level of production and length of production season must be achieved. Rice flower (Ozothamnus diosmifolius) has successfully been developed as a cut flower crop over the last 10 years with >500,000 stems being exported to Japan in each of 1995 and 1996. This success has been associated with the persistence and enthusiasm of pioneer growers, Graham and Esther Cook of Helidon, and with comprehensive research conducted by private and public sectors.

Ozothamnus diosmifolius
Rice flower, Ozothamnus diosmifolius, is a long lasting cut flower which is usually white in colour. Select the thumbnail image or plant name for a higher resolution image - 39k (Photo: Brian Walters).


Australia's major advantage in commercial wildflower production is our immense gene pool with its extreme diversity in colour, form, adaptation and the unsatisfied world wide demand for flowers and foliage. Of the 20,000 Australian plant species 200 - 250 (approx. 1%) are bush picked, with only 50 studied in detail from a horticultural prospective (Dawson, 1994[1]). The search for genetic material needs to recognise the demands of overseas markets (e.g. flowering times), and agronomic requirements. There are opportunities for exploiting intra-specific variation, other means of genetic improvement and the cropping advantages of the right combinations of varieties and locations.

Lists of Australian species and variant forms with unrealised potential in floriculture or for particular uses are common e.g. Blackwell (Western Australia), Slater (Vic), Wrigley, Hockings (Qld). Dependable information on the performance in culture (pot or field) of such potential new crops is not always available. Records of species harvested from the wild and in demand on domestic and export markets are an aid to identifying species worth evaluating are potential crop plants.

Plant Breeders Right (PBR) is a means of rewarding those prepared to develop new Australian wildflower varieties. The 1996 Plant Varieties Journal currently has an estimated 150 acceptances on an annual basis of which about 50% of varieties are ornamentals including 10-15% Australian wildflowers. The UPOV agreement provides the further opportunity for varieties developed in Australia to be protected and exploited overseas in signatory countries.

Selected Examples

The following recent initiatives, predominantly supported by RIRDC, involve the development of new varieties and growing and marketing protocols. They illustrate how the future prospects of the Australian commercial wildflower production industry should be enhanced.

Intraspecific variation in many species is often underestimated and can be substantial. Growns and Considine (1994[1]) collected variants within Chamelaucium uncinatum which had a full colour range and flowered from May to October. Selections from the original 60 populations and 8 ecotypes are being evaluated in sites over Australian.

Worrall, 1994 (1) described the development of Anigozanthos selections with a wide colour range. Plants ex-tissue culture flowered in 12-14 weeks, meeting a primary requirements for a potted flowering commodity.

The use of smoke/smoke solution to overcome dormancy and stimulate germination of seed in over a 38 genera (70 species) of wildflower (e.g. Conospermum, Geleznowia) has been described by Dixon et al (1996 [5]). This treatment has been successful in overcoming a major constraint for propagation of many Australian species for cut flowers, use in amenity horticulture and in regeneration of dry lands. A commercial 'smoke' primer is available from the original South African research group at Kirstenbosch.

" The use of smoke/smoke solution to overcome dormancy......has been successful in overcoming a major constraint for propagation of many Australian species..... "

The huge potential for dried and preserved commodity from Australian wildflowers has been recognised. RIRDC is supporting research into uptake preservation in Queensland species (eg. Eucalyptus and Stenanthemum) and Western Australian species (eg. Conospermum and Agonis) and immersion preservation by Victorian researches (Joyce, 1996 [5]).

Forsberg et al 1996 (4) have described the range of diseases identified in cultivated rice flower and suggested control measures. Sivasithamparam 1996 (4) researching fungal diseases of wildflowers and their control concluded they are most susceptible to pests and diseases (eg. Phytophthora and nematodes) in row cropped horticulture. While phosphonate has a place, methyl bromide will not always be available. Wildflower culture will require a focus on integrated pest control.

Milbus et al, 1996 (4) have evaluated the potential of banksias, still 60% wild harvested, in the main market in Germany. Dominant use in Germany is for dried and dyed purposes with large flowers fetching 1-2.5 DM. Banksia from Australia (40% total) is currently worth 1 million with market prospects of $10 million by 2000.

Ptilotus exaltatus
In 1991 and 1993 Ptilotus exaltatus was the German potted flowering plant of the year. Growns and Abell, 1996 (4) are investigating Ptilotus (with 90 spp in the eastern states and Western Australia) in pot trials and in cultivation. They are developing post harvest protocols because of its 200,000 stems per week export potential.

Select the thumbnail image or plant name for a higher resolution image - 41k (Photo: Brian Walters).

In 1991 and 1993 Ptilotus exaltatus was the German potted flowering plant of the year. Growns and Abell, 1996 (4) are investigating Ptilotus (with 90 spp in the eastern states and Western Australia) in pot trials and in cultivation. They are developing post harvest protocols because of its 200,000 stems per week export potential.

Fuss et al 1996 (4) identified potential bedding plant species, such as the rapid growing annuals Velleia spp and Calandrinia polyandra and floriferous compact perennials like Dampiera wellsania.

Seaton and Woods, 1996 (4) described the protocols for post harvest handling of wax flower from field management to entry to market.

Plummer et al, 1996 (5) described research in Boronia involving selection within and between species to improve cut flower quality and oil quality.

The new gaseous non reversible ethylene binding inhibitor 1 - MCP (1 - methylcyclopropene) has been useful in wax flower in reducing bud, flower and leaf drop (Serek et al, 1995). This non toxic simple organic compound shows promise at low concentrations (ie. 20 nl/L) as a substitute for existing environmentally toxic ethylene inhibiting chemicals (ie.STS).

Turnbull and Beal, 1996 (5) described the potential within Cassinia and Ozothamnus for the selection of genotypes suitable for cultivation for cut flower, foliage and nursery plant production.

Other Opportunities

  • Kings Park and Botanic Garden is leading an ambitious project to develop databases covering each of the botanical and horticultural aspects of Western Australian flora. The horticultural information will include propagation and cultivation data and should be most useful. The initiative should be watched closely and the adoption of the same approaches for Queensland flora considered in due course. There is a role for research institutions, commercial growers and individual enthusiasts. Only reliable horticultural data based on a set of unambiguous criteria will be useful.

  • The coordinated planting, demonstration and evaluation of selected forms of wildflower species across the state and beyond would be useful for both community education and in identifying the better forms for future use. The recent formation of a network of Regional Botanic Gardens may provide suitable sites to enact this proposal in Queensland.

  • A more structured approach to wildflower breeding is required. Many of the popular tropical Grevillea hybrids have arisen from chance crossing and then by selection of volunteer seedlings by observant gardeners. There is a need to use controlled crossing, appropriate population sizes and selection protocols. Conventional plant breeding techniques such as recording and analysing segregation ratios are appropriate options in wildflowers. This would increase our understanding of the genetics of the selected species and enhance subsequent breeding efficiency.

    Grevillea 'Misty Pink'
    Grevillea "Misty Pink", is one of many Grevillea hybrids that have arisen as chance seedlings. Controlled breeding may produce even more spectacular blooms. Select the thumbnail image or plant name for a higher resolution image - 48k (Photo: Brian Walters).

  • With few exceptions, information on the genetics of Australian wildflower species is generally lacking and only occasionally published. Publication of the results of well designed (controlled) breeding programs should be encouraged in relevant newsletters/journals. Improved understanding of inheritance of economic characteristics can only further extend developmental opportunities in wildflowers. In some instances, there may be commercial considerations which keep information confidential.

  • Australian flora provides many opportunities for scientific study and tourism. Grevillea banksii variants at Round Hill Head Q. and the Ozothamnus diosmifolius x O.dioptophyllus hybrid swarm near Miles are just two examples. An inventory of such opportunities drawn from SGAP members extensive knowledge could provide the initial impetus to attract research funding and further development.

  • Access to Australian wildflower germplasm by overseas interests should be through alliances or contractual arrangements. This seems a more desirable course than Australian germplasm being given freely and unencumbered or alternatively locked up and made unavailable. The use of PBR for developed varieties provides additional commercial protection. For particular species or forms at risk, their development for commercial use may be the best means of conservation.


Thanks to my QDPI colleague, Cynthia Carson, who read my paper and made useful suggestions.

Selected References

  1. National Workshop on Australian Native Flowers, University of Queensland (Gatton), 8-10/2/94
  2. Karingal Consultants (1994), The Australian Wildflower Industry: A Review. RIRDC Research Paper No. 94/9, 301.pp
  3. Herbs and Essential Oils Conference and Workshop C B Alexander Agricultural College, 'Tocal', Patterson, NSW; 19-21 April 1995
  4. IV National Workshop for Australian Native Flowers, University Western Australia (Perth) 28-30/9/96, Western Australia. Wildflower Prod. Assoc. 337.pp
  5. Intern. Soc. Hort. Sci. III Intern. Sympos. on new Floric. Crops, Univ. WA 1-4/10/96
  6. Serek, E C Sisler T. Tirosh and S. Mayak (1995); 1-Methylcyclopropene Prevents Bud, Flower and Leaf Abscission of Geraldton Waxflower J Amer. Soc. Hort. Sci. 30:6, 1310
  7. Challenges for Hort. in the Tropics. Proc. 3rd Aust. Soc. Hort. Science. and 1st Aust. Mac. Soc. Res. Conf. 1996 18-22 May. Ed. R A Stephenson and C W Winks. K J Ainsley 4-7, I McConachie, 248-250.

This article was the basis of the Bill Tulloch Memorial Lecture presented to the Queensland Region of the Society for Growing Australian Plants on 10 March 1997. It is reprinted from the December 1997 issue of the SGAP Queensland Region's "Bulletin".

Peter Beal is Principal Horticulturist at Redlands Research Station, Queensland Department of Primary Industries at Yeerongpilly, Brisbane.

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Australian Plants online - June 1998
The Society for Growing Australian Plants