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Australian Plants online

Australian Plants as Cut Flowers

James Frew


I want to give you a few facts about the position of our fledgling wildflower industry. These figures are for Australian flowers and South African flowers.

  • In 1960 exports of fresh wildflowers was $2.0m. Exports of fresh cut flowers was $2.9m.

  • In 1992 exports of fresh wildflowers was $21.0m. Exports of fresh cut flowers was $23.0m.

  • In 1992 only $2.5m of fresh wildflowers were so1d in the domestic market worth $250m.

  • In 1994 the world cut flower market was worth $35 billion.

  • By 2000 it is expected our wildflower industry will be worth $108m whilst the total world cut flower market will be worth $40 billion.

  • The markets for cut flowers are basically - USA 24%, Japan 24%, Europe 52%. The rest of the world markets are insignificant.

  • Three species of flowers constitute greater than 50% of the total market. Roses, chrysanthemums and carnations.

The wildflower farmer's biggest hurdle is lapse time between planting and flower production. Certain plants may not produce a flower for 5 years. Some banksias are slow. For example Banksia coccinea takes 4 to 5 years to flower.

The brilliant red flowers of Banksia coccinea occur on long, straight stems making them ideal as cut flowers. Select the thumbnail image or plant name for a higher resolution image - 30k (Photo: Brian Walters).

Blandfordia grandiflora (Christmas Bells) is a perfect example of a very slow growing plant. The need to find and establish quick return crops is obvious. Annual flower crops from seeds such as Helipterum, Ammobium, Ixodia, Trachymene, Helichrysum and even Anigozanthos will provide a return within a year. Seeds for these crops can be readily purchased from seed suppliers and thereafter collected from your own crops.

However, these crops require inputs such as ground preparation, maybe lime, definitely fertiliser, definitely irrigation and the greatest amounts of risk with the weather. Failure will leave you with nothing - not even a plantation with a wait for 4 - 5 years. But success will give you a marketable product and a cash flow. This provides valuable experience in the flower growing game. Packing, packaging, transport and communication with the market whether retail or wholesale.

Kangaroo Paws, Anigozanthos species and hybrids are colourful and have a long flowering period. This is a red flowering form of Anigozanthos flavidus, which usually has green/yellow flowers. Select the thumbnail image or plant name for a higher resolution image - 56k (Photo: Brian Walters).

I've learnt that when a person with money meets a person with experience, the person with the experience ends up with the money and the person with money ends up with the experience.

Some Basic Economic Factors Important to Wildflower Farming

  1. The $s per acre the crops produce.

  2. The amount of product ready for sale per hour per person.

  3. Presenting product to the market during times of peak demand - Valentines Day, Mothers Day, Winter, or Christmas. It is difficult to sell NSW Christmas Bells on Boxing Day. It is also difficult to market a flower with a name like NSW Christmas Tree (Ceratopetalum gummiferum) if, in your district, it flowers in February. We have had to think of another name and not market it in NSW. "Festive Bush" is OK for most places around Australia. "Valentines Tree" may be better.

  4. The amount of spraying or fertilising required to present a quality product to the market. Basically I consider wildflowers to be relatively "green" compared with traditional flowers such as roses. Try to imagine what percentage the following contribute to the wholesale price of a bunch of roses:-
    • Sprays such as fungicides, herbicides, miticides and besidacides.
    • Spraying labour and machinery running costs.
    • Heating plastic houses.
    • The plastic houses themselves.
Wildflowers are generally grown outside. With careful planning and selection of plants, wildflower producers can get by without lots of fertiliser and water and minimal sprays. The key is to avoid major chemical costs but to keep pests and diseases in check by using chemicals sensibly and effectively. At worst, recognise when removal and burning is the correct procedure with an infected wildflower crop.

Ceratopetalum gummiferum, the "New South Wales Christmas Bush", is popular as a cut flower and is widely grown in gardens as well as commercially. Select the thumbnail image or plant name for a higher resolution image - 36k (Photo: Brian Walters).

The red colour of the "New South Wales Christmas Bush", is produced by the developing seed capsules which follow the white flowers. The intensity of the colour can be variable. Select the thumbnail image or plant name for a higher resolution image - 25k (Photo: Brian Walters).

Plants For Cut Flower Production Come From Two Sources

  • From recommended plants
  • From trialed plants
The only way to find out if a plant is suitable for producing a crop in your district is to trial your potential crops with 10 or 50 or 100 plants. In our case we do it in randomly selected patches called "follies". From there we can see if a plant responds to the soil, to fertiliser, to irrigation, to the climate and so on. Flowering can be affected by seasonal conditions and careful observation is essential to give a plant its proper rating. For example, this season we had no Autumn and the early Winter has resulted in a lot of our crops being 6 weeks late. It means we are without product at a time when a larger cash flow is important to us.

My advice to new growers (or established growers for that matter) is to make sure, when choosing plants for cut flower crops that your knowledgeable nursery person hasn't been stuck with several hundred or several thousand plants that would "make a great cut flower - has heaps of potential". Potential What?!! Plants that have been selected by the nursery trade may only be suitable to that industry - the 6" pot retail trade. Flower growing and the nursery trade are two separate industries. The criteria that the nursery trade uses to select forms of Boronia megastigma ie, compact form, ease of striking, are entirely different to the criteria that the cut wildflower industry requires: long branches, flower colour, flowering timing and ability to regrow after severe pruning. This is the pattern for most of the native plants found in the nursery trade.

Sometimes the selective process requires several selections. To produce a crop of Hypocalymma angustifolium we use 3 forms:-

  • One is very early to open the market door but is not a brilliant plant.
  • The next one is white which has to be picked quickly because the flowers turn brown.
  • The last is best and we have most of that but the wholesalers are already taking it in volume so the crop is sold quickly and without fuss.
Wildflower growers need to find a nursery that supplies plants specifically for the cut flower trade. There are some excellent nurseries that do provide the right plants in Western Australia, South Australia and Victoria.

Learn to Propagate

The key to a successful venture is to learn to propagate your own plants (keep in mind that overnight success takes about 15 years):-

  • Firstly from seeds collected or purchased.
  • Secondly from cuttings taken from purchased plants )beware of Plant Breeders' Rights rules) or from the bush or from trialed plants from your follies.
I'll digress here for a moment; does anyone know of a dairy farmer that doesn't raise calves or of a wool producer that doesn't join his ewes? In the traditional flower market almost all the successful growers are propagators as well. A part of their income is derived from producing plants for other growers.

Currently wildflower growers are seeing the need to diversify their flower crops but they are totally reliant on outside sources for new material. There is a general reluctance to purchase and plant huge amounts of plants on speculation because of the enormous costs involved. Understandably so.

I have met with people that have had land and, say, $30,00000 to spend on plants to get into wildflower production. It's a risky business so with tongue in cheek I advise them to invest in a couple of dozen bottles of expensive French champagne, relax, have a few drinks, go to the races and put. the lot on a risky horse - a long shot. If it looses you can forget about wildflower farming. If it comes home you can forget about wildflower farming. However, if your life is free of failures you are not taking enough risks.

Seriously, I suggest that $30,000.00 should be spent on nursery equipment such as sheds, pumps, hot houses, misting or fogging systems, barrows, trays, pots and plants to trial.

"....keep in mind that overnight success takes about 15 years."

Growers will benefit from propagating their own plants in other ways.
  • By having well laid out plantations that have been planned. The problem of incomplete rows or plants for replacement is overcome. Often production nurseries will have a failure with your order, the result being you are left without the expected number of plants. So your plans have to be shelved or altered for another year.

  • Benefit by learning another skill that augurs well for periods of economic inactivity in flower production, ie. producing plants for selling.

  • By investing in capital equipment from the outset rather than the ongoing cost of buying plants. In our case we have planted somewhere in the vicinity of $35.000 of plants in the first 6 months of this year if we had bought them in. Because the costs of establishing crops has been minimised, the economic barrier for expansion has been removed.

A wildflower farm has to be dynamic. Old and new plantations have to co-exist. A grower must be planting replacement plants well before cropping plants become moribund.

Let's have a look at a couple of flowers.

Banksia coccinea

initial PlantingsReplacement
Propagation - SeedSept 1995July 2004
PlantedFeb 1996Feb 2005
First CropJuly 1999July 2008
Good Crops2000-20072009-2016
RemovalOct 2009

Boronia heterophylla

initial PlantingsReplacement
Propagation - CuttingsApril 1995April 2000
PlantedOct 1995Oct 2000
Good CropsSept 1997-2002Sept 2002-2007
RemovalNov 2002Nov 2007

In the case of B.coccinea from seed, it takes 3-4 years before any harvest. Then there is 7-8 years of good production before a slow decline in flower production. There is no room for sentiment in wildflower farming. Plants that are not performing well must be removed. By being able to propagate a grower is able to look at his or her plantation in a different light and make decisions that would otherwise be put off. Flower farmers are in the business of producing flowers for profit. Activities must be planned and getting the timing right is critical for making a successful business. Never delay or defer major issues because they won't go away.

Finally, the most important reason for propagating your own material is that, as a wildflower farmer, the plants will most likely go into the ground before they become pot-bound.

From our point of view the most important aspect of a healthy plant is the root system. Plants that have been pot-bound will not flourish as a factory unit on a wildflower farm. Plants that have been pot-bound won't regrow after harvesting, they may never produce a decent stem length, they will be more susceptible to disease and they will always be a waste of space. Over the years I have seen plants so pot-bound when planting them out they would have just as much chance growing well if we left them in the plastic pots and just threw them at the freshly rotary hoed ground. Have you ever been in the bush and for whatever reason pulled up a tiny Eucalyptus seedling? A seedling that has 75mm of growth on top may have a root system 300mm long. It's always hard to transplant young seedlings for that reason. The root system is well developed long before the top of the plant starts to grow.

"Geraldton Wax", Chamelaucium uncinatum is one of the most popular Australian cut flowers. The flowers keep well and a number of colours are available. Select the thumbnail image or plant name for a higher resolution image - 37k (Photo: Brian Walters).

Geraldton Wax, for example, must be planted when the cutting is very small. If the plant in a forestry tube (150mm high x 50mm square) is more than 75mm high it is too late to put that wax plant in the ground. The main trunk will become woody and brittle and susceptible to wind damage. The plant will probably only grow to 1/2 the size of its potential. A wax plant planted when very small will grow extremely quickly, regrow quickly after harvesting, respond to fertilising and produce better flowers for a longer time.

By being our own propagators, our experience is that we can make the decision at the time of planting as to whether the plants are too pot-bound to put in. If they are we can redo the plants and put them in at the right time. However, this rarely happens because we are following the progress of our prospective plantings closely, making sure that ground is ready for planting well in advance.

The following is a list of Australian plants that we produce flower crops from or are experimenting with.

Acacia baileyana var purpureaDarwinia diosmoides
Acacia cultriformisDarwinia leiostyla
Acacia denticulosaDarwinia oxylepis
Acacia lepiformisDaviesia cordata
Acacia merinthophera - a form of Acacia hynesiana Dianella laevis
Acacia terminalisDryandra formosa
Actinodium cunninghamiiDryandra quercifolia
Actinotus helianthiiEremophila nivea
Adenanthos obovataEriostemon australasius
Agonis juniperinaEriostemon myporoides
Agonis linearifoliaEriostemon myporoides "Flower Girl"
Agonis parvicepsEriostemon myporoides "Profusion"
Ammobium alatum "Grandiflorium"Eriostemon verricosus
Anigozanthos flavidis hybrids - "Bush Ranger", "Bush Dawn", "Bush Red", "Bush Gold", "Bush Noon", "Yellow Rock", "Pink Joey"Eucalyptus crenulata
Anigozanthos viridisEucalyptus hybrids, "Blue Baby", "Silver Drop"
Astartea "Winter Pink"Grevillea asplenifolia
Baeckea linifolia Grevillea hybrids, "lvanhoe", "Blondie", "Hookerana", "Moonlight"
Banksia baxteriGuichenotia macrantha
Banksia coccineaHakea coriacea
Banksia menziesiiHakea cuccullata
Banksia occidentalisHakea francisiana
Banksia praemorsa (yellow flowers)Hakea multilineata
Banksia prionotesHelichrysum bracteatum = Bracteantha bracteata (selections)
Banksia speciosaHelichrysum semipapposum = Chrysocephalum semipapposum (Big Billy Bore form)
Banksia spinulosa var collinaHypocalymma angustifolium (early, white, pink)
Beaufortia orbifoliaHypocalymma cordifolium "Golden Vale"
Beaufortia sparsaHypocalymma strictum
Blandfordia grandifloraHypocalymma xanthopetalum
Boronia "Aussie Rose"Homoranthus darwiniodes
Boronia clavataIsopogon cuneatus
Boronia crassipes x heterophylla "Lipstick"lsopogon dawsonii
Boronia cymosa ("Granite Boronia")lsopogon formosus
Boronia heterophyllalsopogon latifolius
Boronia heterophylla "Morandy Candy"lxodia achilleoides (Nelson forms, Lofty Ranges form, Angelsea form, Kangaroo lsland form)
Boronia megastigma var.luteaKunzea recurva
Boronia muelleri (several forms)Kunzea recurva var. montana
Boronia pulchellaKunzea vestita (green leaf and grey leaf)
Boronia serrulataLeptospermum rotundifolum "Lavender Queen"
Boronia thujonaMelaleuca diosmifolia
Calocephalus brownii = Leucophyta brownllMelaleuca huegelli
Ceratopetalum gummerifumMelaleuca nesophila
Chamelaucium ciliatum (forms)Micromyrtus ciliatum forms
Chamelaucium megalopetalum hybridsPimelia nivea
Chamelaucium uncinatum "Alba"Rhodanthe chlorocephala ssp manglesii
Chamelaucium uncinatum "CWA pink"Rhodanthe chlorocephala ssp rosea
Chamelaucium uncinatum x floriferumStenanthenum scortechini
Chamelaucium uncinatum hybridsThryptomene calycina
Chamelaucium uncinatum "Mullering Brook" formsThryptomene "Lola"
Chamelaucium uncinatum "Purple Pride"Thryptomene micrantha
Crowea "Pink Blush"Thryptomene micrantha x calycina
Crowea salignaThyrptomene saxicola
Crowea saligna x exalataTrachymene ceareleum
Darwinia citriodoraVerticordia plumosa

This article is a reproduction of a paper presented by James at the SGAP 18th Biennial Seminar held at Ballarat, Victoria from 23 to 29 September 1995.

James is the director of The Australian Wildflower Company operating at Longford in Gippsland, Victoria. The farm covers 80 acres half of which has Australian plants under cultivation while the other half grows South African species. The coastal climate and sandy soils are ideal for growing a wide range of species.

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Australian Plants online - December 1996
The Society for Growing Australian Plants