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Australian Plants online

Commercial Growing of Cut Flowers

Lotte von Richter

Introduction

Cut flowers used for decoration have been used in Europe and Asia for centuries and can be seen preserved in works of art. The development of selected varieties and named cultivars has been going on since at least 300-400 AD for chrysanthemums in China, although their introduction to Europe was only in the late 1700s. Roses were depicted in art works from 2000 BC and grown extensively during Roman times. Tulips were grown during the 1450s in Constantinople and eventually took Europe by storm 100 years later during the Dutch bulb trading frenzy. Even now, roses, tulips and chrysanthemums are still the most popular flowers sold at the Dutch flower auctions at Aalsmeer.

The use of Australian plants as cut flowers is much more recent. The early commercial cut flower producers in Australia planted introduced species like tulips, roses and carnations using varieties and technology developed overseas. Until very recently Australian flowers were exclusively harvested from the bush and not cultivated for sale. It is only since the 1970s that interest and resources have been put into establishing native plantation-grown crops in Australia. The first species grown commercially were Geraldton wax and kangaroo paws.


Cut flower markets

Before the development of Australian plants there was already some market acceptance for bush harvested lines, and when demand increased it became essential to cultivate and produce reliable quality products. The development of different markets is a slow process but is progressing with Australian plants. There is now a steady demand for natives on the domestic fresh flower market although this is limited by the relatively small population of Australia and the reluctance by many people to spend money on fresh flowers! The growers have therefore turned to export to ensure ongoing income from their fresh flowers. Consumers in Japan and Europe spend considerably more on flowers and their seasons oppose ours here in the Southern Hemisphere producing a market for Australian flowers.

The nature of some Australian flowers like banksias has also allowed for the development of dried, preserved and/or dyed flowers. For example, in Germany dried and dyed banksia flowers are used in cemeteries to provide colour during the winter months.

Some Australian Plants used as Cut Flowers
Click on thumbnail images or plant names for larger images
Banksia coccinea
Banksia coccinea
Banksia prionotes
Banksia prionotes
Chamelaucium uncinatum
Chamelaucium uncinatum
'Purple Pride'
Blandfordia grandiflora
Blandfordia grandiflora
Boronia megastigma
Boronia megastigma
'Harlequin'
Photos: Brian Walters

The markets for Australian native flowers are expanding as interest and knowledge of our plants increases. There is always interest in new products to tempt customers and therefore there has been some effort put into researching species that are not grown commercially. The Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) has funded many projects researching new cut flower species including Actinotus, Conospermum, Caustis, Baeckea, Leptospermum, Ixodia, Geleznowia, Ozothamnus, Acacia and Chamelaucium. (RIRDC website)


Cultivar development

The development of a new cut flower product often follows a development pattern:

  • Flowers are initially bush harvested under licence.
  • When the product starts to show potential and there is a demand for the flowers the system then moves towards managed stands in natural areas.
  • Usually the crop becomes established in areas where they grow naturally but can be grown inten-sively in plantations. This coincides with the mass propagation of selected varieties to produce uni-form and distinct lines.
  • Finally the area of production expands into regions outside the preferred natural habitat for the spe-cies, including overseas.
  • During the later stages of development, selection of hardy, long stemmed types are usually made and this eventually leads to controlled breeding programs being established. At this time more ex-tensive work is carried out to understand the cultivation requirements of the crop.

Table 1 shows the species of Australian plants commonly used as cut flowers, along with some of the cultivars documented. The majority of these have been created here in Australia although extensive research into Chamelaucium cultivation and breeding has been carried out in Israel.

Table 1 Summary of some Australian plants used as cut flowers
(Hyde, 1998, Lidbetter, 2000 Plummer 2000 and FECA website)
Botanical Name Common Name Cultivars available for
cut flower production
Chamelaucium uncinatum
C. axillare
C. ciliatum
C. floriferum
C. megalopetalum
Geraldton Wax
Esperence Wax
Stirling Wax
Walpole Wax
Large Waxflower
More than 50.
Most common is 'Purple Pride'. Also 'Alba', 'CWA Pink', 'Mullering Brook', 'Lady Stephanie'
Anigozanthos flavidus
A. pulcherrimus
A. manglesii
Macropidia fuliginosa
Kangaroo Paw 'Yellow Gem', 'Big Red'
Thryptomene calycina Grampians thryptomene or
Victorian laceflower
'Ivory Lace', 'Coral Lace'
Stirlingia latifolia Blueboy No named varieties available yet
Banksia coccinea
B. prionotes
B. hookeriana
B. burdettii
B. victoriae
B. baxteri
Scarlet banksia
Acorn banksia
Hooker's banksia
Burdett's banksia
Woolly orange banksia
Bird's nest banksia
'Waite Orange', 'Waite Crimson' and 'Waite Flame'
Caustis blakei Koala fern No named varieties available yet
Scholtzia involucrata
S. oligandra
S. capitata
Spiked scholtzia
Pink scholtzia
No named varieties available yet
Eucalyptus gunnii
E. pulverulenta
E. cinerea
Cider gum
Silver-leaved mountain gum
Argyll apple
No named varieties available yet
Boronia heterophylla
B. megastigma
Red boronia
Brown boronia
'Moonglow', 'Cameo', 'Lipstick', 'Morandy Candy'
'John Maquire's Red', 'Arch Chandler's Red', 'Harlequin', 'Lutea'
Ozothamnus diosmifolius Riceflower 'Cook's Tall Pink', 'Cook's Snow White', 'Redlands Sandra', 'Dalby White', 'Dalby Pink', 'Coles Pink No.1'
Eriostemon australasius
Philotheca myoporoides
Austral eriostemon
Native daphne
No named varieties available yet
Telopea speciocissima Waratah 'Fire and Brimstone', 'Wirrimbirra White', 'Songlines', 'Shady Lady' (hybrid between T. speciocissima x T. oreades)
Actinotus helianthi Flannel flower No named varieties available yet
Ceratopetalum gummiferum Christmas bush or Festival bush 'Albery's Red', 'Shiraz', 'Silent Night', 'White Christmas'
Blandfordia grandiflora Christmas bell No named varieties available yet
Ixodia achillaeoides ssp alata Ixodia daisy No named varieties available yet
Conospermum eatoniae (blue)
C. caeruleum (slender)
C. triplinervium
Smokebush No named varieties available yet
Geleznowia verrucosa Yellow bells No named varieties available yet
Baeckea behrii
B. virgata
B. linifolia
Baeckea No named varieties available yet
(Note: The botanical names of many Baeckea species have changed - see Australian Plants online, December 2001).
Doryanthes excelsa Gymea lily No named varieties available yet
Ptilotus exaltatus
P. obovatus
Mulla Mulla or Showy foxtail
Cotton bush
No named varieties available yet
Acacia retinodes
A. buxifolia
A. baileyana
A. merinthophora
Swamp or silver wattle
Box-leaf wattle
Cootamundra wattle
Zig-zag wattle
No named varieties available yet
Verticordia eriocephala Native cauliflower No named varieties available yet
Grevillea whiteana   'Spiderman'
Haemodorum coccineum Scarlet bloodroot No named varieties available yet
Leptospermum rotundifolium   'Lavender Queen'

Flannel flower development

Flannel flowers can be used as an example of the process of domesticating species for cut flower production. They have been used extensively as cut flowers since the 1800s when stems were harvested from natural stands along the New South Wales' north and central coast. The cultivation of this species by commercial cut flower growers began in the early 1990s and research on the species increased after 1995. The crop is therefore in its infancy after only six years of intensive development. During that time progress has been made into understanding the cultivation requirements and in particular the propagation of Actinotus helianthi.

The first stage of most new plant introductions involves the screening of many populations and the consequent selection of the most suitable cut flower varieties. In our work flannel flowers were collected from about 60 populations and there was an amazing variation in the growth habits ranging from 20cm to 150cm high. The taller forms were propagated and these selections were then studied in detail. The adoption of a new species by commercial cut flower growers depends on the ease of propagation and flowering under a variety of conditions. With flannel flowers, the propagation has always been the biggest hurdle to overcome and since 1995 research at Mount Annan Botanic Garden had been carried out to investigate seed germination, cutting production and tissue culture techniques to find a successful and reliable multiplication system (von Richter and Offord, 1997a).

Initial studies involved seed germination from a wide variety of flannel flower populations collected from the NSW coastal areas. Studies to improve germination included seed storage and dormancy breaking methods like smoke application and seed coat removal. Some success was achieved using a smoked paper (Kirstenbosch Seed Primer) but interestingly the results showed that seed from each population of flannel flowers responds differently. Some seed trials resulted in over 90% germination but this is not reproducible every time.

The work then moved onto assessing cutting production of selected varieties and finally tissue culture of the most preferred lines. Flannel flowers can be produced by softwood to semi-hardwood cuttings taken in autumn and treated with a rooting hormone and under-bench heating. Tissue culture has been used successfully to produce larger numbers of individual selections and a commercial laboratory is now growing a couple of varieties.

The next stage was to determine the cultivation requirements. Studies were carried out at Mount Annan Botanic Garden to assess the plant density required to optimise the yield of the crop and to assess the effect of slow release fertilisers on potted flannel flowers. For cut flower production two different density approaches could be taken. First, planting at high density (15 cm apart) the crop could be grown as an annual and would produce the highest number of stems per square metre of ground. On the other hand, wider spacing allowed a greater number of stems per plant to be produced and the plants could be cropped for two years. The type of system used depends on the management strategies of the individual grower (von Richter and Offord, 1999). Flannel flowers respond well to added fertilisers with significant increases in stem number with increasing application rates of slow release fertilisers (up to 10kg/m potting mix).

Some Australian Plants used as Cut Flowers
Click on thumbnail images or plant names for larger images
Actinotus helianthi
Actinotus helianthi
Flannel flower
Anigozanthos manglesii
Anigozanthos manglesii
Leptospermum rotundifolium
Leptospermum rotundifolium
Ozothamnus diosmifolius
Ozothamnus diosmifolius
Pink form
Photos: Danni Church, Brian Walters

During the period 1995 to 1999 two field trials were carried out. The first, involving five NSW growers, compared plants of one selection that had been propagated by cuttings, seed and tissue culture. Generally, seed and tissue cultured plants performed better than cutting grown stock (von Richter and Offord, 1997b). The second field trial was conducted on 19 properties around Australia in every state except Tasmania and the ACT. The aim was to gain a broad understanding of the soil and climate types suitable for flannel flower production, using four to five selections at each site. Many of the sites were suitable for flannel flowers, particularly along the east coast of Australia and also Western Australia (von Richter and Offord, 2000). This trial also identified the areas that still require further study to fully understand the species and establish it as a stable commercial crop.


Future developments

What is the immediate future of flannel flowers? Well the demand for the cut flowers is high enough to warrant further and continued work. The most immediate problems are finding resistant flannel flowers that can survive in soils containing Fusarium pathogens, or perfecting the management of the species to ensure they are not so susceptible to disease. Also the release of named flannel flowers varieties onto the market would ensure a consistent and quality product particularly for export. Finally a system needs to be developed to ensure clonal plants can be produced at a reasonable price and this is likely to be from seed production rather than tissue culture in the future.


Conclusion

Cut flower production using native flowers is a developing industry that is essentially in its infancy. Several species like Geraldton wax and kangaroo paw are well known internationally but many other species like flannel flowers are still to be introduced worldwide. It is a slow process that will continue for many years given the amazing number of potential plants found in our flora.


References

FECA (Flower Export Council of Australia) website.

Hyde, K.W. The new rural industries: A handbook for farmers and investors. (1998), Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, Canberra.

Lidbetter, J.R. New and potential east coast crops, published in Flowers 2000, (2000) the Australian Flower Conference Proceedings.

Plummer, J.A. New and potential west coast crops, published in Flowers 2000, (2000) the Australian Flower Conference Proceedings.

RIRDC website

von Richter, L.V. and Offord, C.A. Propagation of flannel flowers (Actinotus helianthi), 1997a, Combined Proceedings International Plant Propagators' Society 47: 71-73.

von Richter, L.V. and Offord, C.A Development of flannel flowers as cut flowers, 1997b, Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation Final Report RBG-1A.

von Richter, L.V. and Offord, C.A. Factors affecting field performance of flannel flowers, 1999, 5th Australian Wild-flower Conference, 14-17 April 1999, Carlton Crest hotel, Melbourne pp 124-125.

von Richter, L.V. and Offord, C.A. Flannel flower: Development of a production system, 2000, Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation Final report RBG-2A.


This article was originally presented at the ASGAP 21st Biennial Seminar which was held in Canberra, ACT, 1 to 5 October 2001.


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Australian Plants online - June 2004
Association of Societies for Growing Australian Plants